On April 22, 2021, Margaret Vanderbeek Barstow, Meg, my wonderful mother-in-law, celebrated her 100th birthday. According to what I could find on Google, that is something that less than two-hundredth of one percent of Americans will achieve. And she did it in the midst of the Covid virus pandemic. Not surprisingly, she also came close to celebrating that monumental birthday in her own independent-living apartment at a senior residence in Hartford, Connecticut. Alas, she broke her hip a month before the big day and was now at a nearby long-term-care facility.
In the spring of 2011, Cedar and I went on a wonderful six-week honeymoon trip to Spain, Turkey, and Morocco. People had given us monetary gifts for our wedding, so our travels were all but paid for. In Turkey we had a 17-day small-group tour with the Turkish singer and Sufi Latif Bolat, whom I had gotten to know at his concerts in both Honolulu and Boulder. In Spain we stayed in Orgiba, near Granada, at the Finca, or estate, of an old friend. In Morocco a highlight was three nights in a mansion belonging to my meditation brother Simon Guerrand-Hermès, the co-owner of the renowned couturier Hermès of Paris. There we were waited on hand and foot by a staff of seven and had a brief experience of living like the rich...
In 2012 my wife, Cedar, and I spent the first six months of the year as volunteer teachers at an international school in Indonesian Central Borneo. So, what were an elderly Caucasian couple from Boulder, Colorado, doing in the middle of the jungle on the world’s third largest island? Well, she and I had always wanted to be Peace Corps volunteers, but the most we had managed were junior years abroad in the very tame wilds of Copenhagen, Denmark (Cedar) and Heidelberg, Germany (me). Now friends had established this English-language 1st-12th-grade private school outside the capital of Indonesian Central Borneo, or Kalimantan Tengah, where we went as volunteers...
As I write these words, it’s a beautiful spring Monday afternoon here in Boulder, Colorado. It’s also Holy Monday, March 29, 2021. Holy Week began yesterday as always with Palm Sunday. Jesus’s followers, although technically they were ahead of him, waved palm fronds and threw down their coats and cloaks to cover the dusty dirt road to Jerusalem to honor the way for him and his borrowed white donkey. Fortunately, the committee in charge of naming religious holidays wisely decided against calling the start of Holy Week Coat or Cloak Sunday...
Some of you know that learning foreign languages is my hobby. As I like to say, I can get into trouble in 12 languages and back out (more or less) in eight. But Danish? Okay. A little background. Some 15 months after my first wife died, a Danish friend invited me to visit her in Copenhagen. So I ended up spending three months there, the full time allotted on a visitor’s visa, from mid-January through mid-April, 2008. Now Danish, like English, Dutch, German, and the other Scandinavian languages, belongs to the Germanic family of tongues. Since I speak English and German fluently, I thought Danish would be easy to learn. Well, reading and writing are fairly straightforward. But speaking and understanding other people are a totally different matter. For unlike Spanish, German, Italian, Indonesian, even the romanizations of Japanese and Chinese Mandarin, Danish is unphonetic. In short, what you see on paper is not what you hear when certain words or parts of words are spoken...
As a future English major, I was honored to have been admitted to English 25, back in 1956 Yale’s Honors English course for first-year students. I got to class early that first day and couldn’t wait to meet our instructor. When he walked in, however, I was taken aback. He was nothing like what I had expected. Although he had the requisite Harris Tweed jacket on, he seemed to me more like Disney’s Scrooge McDuck than a suave Yale professor. My disappointment deepened when he introduced himself. His Southern-inflected English was crammed full of strange idioms and bizarre mannerisms. And here I was waiting for terse New England cool. Decades later when I read Dick Cavett’s autobiography, Cavett, he recounts being taken by his roommate to a class taught by this professor, then spends the better part of the page describing the oddities of speech he experienced and learned to mimic...
One of my favorite undergraduate professors was Yale’s Romantic Poetry expert, Frederick A. Pottle. Mr. Pottle—Yale professors were never called “doctor”—was a wiry New Englander in his 50s. He sounded a bit like Robert Frost when he spoke and was an old-fashioned Republican who believed it better for neighbors to do in-person charity than having a distant government dispense impersonal monthly checks. But the reason I bring him up at all is that, although he was our Romantics experts, he was known in the world as the editor of James Boswell’s 18th-century journals. I had begun reading these chronicles even before going to college. Boswell wrote that he used journaling to adjust his character as milady used her looking glass to adjust her appearance. He was also honest in writing about his triumphs and failures in life, and for a curious teenager there were some wonderfully salty parts...
Had she lived, Simone would have turned 90 today, March 4, 2021. Fate had another date in mind, however: September 20th, 2006. On that day she died peacefully at home in our Honolulu apartment after a short bout with pancreatic cancer. She was 75 ½. Had she lived two months and ten days longer, we would have celebrated 43 years of marriage...
She came when I was one and a half. She was supposed to stay for a year to give my mother some respite in caring for me. She had been Aunt Helen’s, Mother’s twin sister’s, maid. She must have been around 40 when she arrived at our house in Great Neck, Long Island. According to the family story—I don’t remember the actual event—I greeted her at the door with a big “Hel-lo, Florine!” That was it. She stayed with us until I was 16...
Of the eight languages I have some competence in, French is near the bottom. These days, though, it may be moving up. The reason: my current French email correspondence and occasional Skype session with our lovely French goddaughter, Marie. So that’s perhaps the reason that the title for this week’s blog came to me in that language, and an important proverb it is: en anglais, LONG LIVE DIFFERENCE!
I was fascinated from a young age by the possibility of life beyond our planet. This was decades before Carl Sagan came along with his “billions and billions of stars” and the mathematical probability that the human species was unlikely to be the lone set of sentient beings in the universe. So, not surprisingly, I read whatever I could about UFO sightings, especially on what later came to be known as “close encounters of the third kind.” In my middle years I even had lunch with the then chair of the Northwestern University Astronomy Department, Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the most famous UFO researcher of his day.
My dad, Jacob (“Jack”) Newton Feldman, was the child of East European immigrants. His father, Grandpa Paul, was a loveable scallywag from Romania who arrived at Ellis Island in 1898. I’ve written about him in an earlier blog. Dad’s mother, Ida Litzky Feldman, landed in New York City around the same time from Odessa, Ukraine. The daughter of a scribe who meticulously copied Torah scrolls and was considered a holy man because of his daily proximity to the Word of God, Grandma Ida was a by-the-book Orthodox Jewish woman who raised her three sons to be the same. Dad was the oldest. She failed with all three.
Life may be a cabaret, old chum, but for me it’s a Camino. So what’s a Camino? With a small “c” it’s simply a way, path, or road. It may even be the Spanish translation of the Daoist concept of the Tao. Dictionaries don’t help here, and there’s no one around I can ask. But with a capital “c” the word refers to the Pilgrimage Way of St. James the Apostle, which starts at various spots all over Europe and concludes in Northwestern Spain at the Cathedral of St. James (Santiago) in a city called Santiago de Campostela (St. James of the Starry Field) in the Province of Galicia.
In my 81 years on the planet, I’ve been blessed to have known my share of characters. None, though, tops my paternal grandfather, Paul (Pincus) Feldman, who died when I was 14. Grandpa Paul came to this country in the 1890s from Galati (pronounced “Galatz”), near the Black Sea in Romania. He and his boyfriend, both 19, landed on Ellis Island, where their adventure began. The Jewish community in Denver was short two males over the age of 13 to complete their minyan, or religious quorum, and make it possible for them to arrange their conference calls to God. (It would have been assumed in those days that all Jewish men over 13 would have been bar mitzvah.) The Denverites had pooled their money and transmitted it to a Jewish charity in New York City with the request that they send the first two Jewish greenhorns over 13 with no place to go to Colorado. God was getting impatient! So, they pinned tickets on the boys’ jackets, took them to Penn Station, and off they went to what Grandpa always called “Calarada, Denver.”
The Talmud sternly states that a Jewish father who denies his son (!) a religious education is worse than a thief. But my father’s having done so made total sense to me. While his father was a lovable ne’er-do-well in the mold of Zorba the Greek, his mother, the daughter of a scribe (a Torah copier, not a member of the religio-political party in the New Testament), was a zealously Orthodox Jewish woman who literally beat religion into her three sons. Once Dad was out of the house and on his own, he vowed never to inflict religion on his children. The results were that most of my religious upbringing, thanks to our “colored maid” Florine and four years at a Protestant boarding school, was Christian, and I am a Christian (Episcopalian) today.
My mother, Estelle (Jewish name: Esther), had a sister, Helen (Jewish name: Hannah). As fraternal twins, not only didn’t they look alike—Aunt Helen looked to me like a female Bob Hope with long hair, while my mother looked like, well, my mother—but they also had opposite personalities. While Mother was earnest, her twin was silly. They even sounded different. Mother had somewhere acquired an upscale accent, whereas Aunt Helen had the cow-like sounds I associated with the Southern New Jersey rural community where they had both grown up.
In middleclass Jewish-American families, education isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. Mine was true to form, and lucky I was to profit from it. Anyway, my parents, both born in the first decade of the 20th century of recent immigrants to a country where laws against anti-Semitism had not yet been written, understood that the coin of the realm was money. If you had it, you were a king; if you didn’t, you were a bum. And being Jewish bums was not the future they had in mind for their two kids, my older sister, Natalie, and me.
I haven’t had a lot of good to say about the USA during the last four years. But even before the disastrous 2016 presidential election, the nightmare version of the American Dream was frequently on my mind. My otherwise good, supportive parents as the children of immigrants and adults during the Great Depression had an overly high regard for the elixir quality of money. My sister was counseled to “marry well,” and the notable investment in my private education—four years at boarding school followed by four more at Yale—was primarily so I could become a well-paid professional. Alas for them, my sister was widowed at 40 by her middle-manager husband in Argentina, and I became a member of a notably poorly paid profession, college teaching.
Right now, just ten days from Christmas in this year of our Covid, 2020, my church, St. John’s Episcopal in Boulder, Colorado, is doing a weekly Bible Study on the Acts of the Apostles. About 20 of us Zoom in each Wednesday morning while a clergy or lay leader facilitates a 75-minute discussion on the two chapters assigned for the week in question. This Wednesday is the last session before the Holidays. We’ll finish up sometime in January.
Sometimes I wonder—more frequently in the last four years than at any time since the Vietnam War. Here are two provocative sets of statistics. Set 1: With just 4.25% of the world’s population (updated 12/3/2020 by worldometers.info), the United States has 21.2% of the world’s documented Covid cases, including 18% of Covid deaths (updated 12/3/2020 by the World Health Organization: covid19.who.int). Set 2: With just 4.25% of the world’s population (reference above), the United States has 20% of the world’s prison population (as of 1/16/2020 per prisonpolicy.org). How parallel these two datasets are! I should also mention that people of color are much more likely to be incarcerated than white people. (This is especially true of Black men.) According to the NAACP, African Americans are more than five times more likely than whites to be imprisoned (naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/).
In this pre-Covid-vaccine Thanksgiving, being grateful is not so easy. Still, there is a time-honored medicine you can start taking now: the gratitude pill. First, tradition. Meister Eckhart, the German Dominican theologian, philosopher, and mystic who died around 1327, famously said, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” The modern version of Eckhart’s advice is counting our blessings. When we regularly follow this practice, we come to realize how much we have to be thankful for and can live a happy, or happier, life. In achieving this goal, we often think of those less fortunate than we are. “I complained that I had no shoes until I met someone who had no feet,” goes the saying.
Why is this Thanksgiving unlike all other Thanksgivings? Well, for all other Thanksgivings, families gather in large numbers over elaborately prepared turkey dinners. But Thanksgiving 2020 is happening during an unprecedented surge in Covid 19. The careful and the cautious are staying home. Enough traditional gatherings will take place, however, to create millions of superspreader events, unintentionally honoring our maskless—and clueless— outgoing President.
Some of you are old enough to remember Science. It’s something virtually all of us used to believe in before the advent of a religion called Trumpianity. Now, not so much. But back in the day when this 81-year-old was learning about the world, he was taught that science and the scientific method comprised the best way to know what was what and what wasn’t. Anyway, in a newspaper supplement, the November 2020 issue of Spry Living, I was astonished to read a little article, “Why You Need to Wise Up.” “People with compassion,” I read, “are less lonely…"
And the Trumpette shall tweet
And Republicans shall tremble.
They’ll even dissemble
To keep him around.
But Biden will beat him.
Joe Biden will beat him.
The Lord has spoken:
Your country is broken.
But I have spoken.
And now he’ll go away.
Dear Q, where are you?
Where are you? Where are you?
Please tell us, please tell us.
Please tell us what to think.
Our head is in the drink.
Their realities, they stink!
You said he’d be elected.
Oh boy, are we dejected!
Our man has been rejected.
How could you be so wrong?
But I have spoken.
Your country, it was broken.
That Q was a deceiver.
But Biden’s a good leader.
He’ll save your land for me.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I took a mini-vacation of four nights to a guest ranch in nearby Wyoming, just two-and-a-half hours away by car. A main attraction turned out to be the night sky. Unlike in our Boulder, Colorado (pop. 110,000), you could really see the stars there: not just the first-magnitude ones as at home, but even the Milky Way in all its star-studded glory.
This little essay, however, is not about astral bodies. Rather, as I approach my 81st birthday on November 6th, a week from this writing, I’m thinking about the well-known people I’ve been fortunate to have met in my life.