23 November, 2012

Happy  Birthday Karen Beth Hunter, wherever you are!
Happy  Birthday Karen Beth Hunter, wherever you are!
Happy  Birthday Karen Beth Hunter, wherever you are!

02 September, 2012

It's weird and terribly lonely to be writing on this blog today, the seventh anniversary of the death of my friend Karen Beth Hunter.  Part  of me wants to go out, part of me cannot go out.  Over the years, my friends have forgotten.  It's not their fault.  Amazing though  One waited until close to midnight to call me a few years ago. I have friends who can't stand the sound of my voice.  Friends who have other things to do. This doesn't make them bad friends.  Just emphasizes the loneliness of not having someone who wanted to talk to me first and foremost.

Larry and Bernie have been great.

I haven't read a book in a few weeks,  haven't been interested in very much.  There's fear, there's despair, there's a feeling of hopelessness.

It's one day.  It was one horrible day.

I miss Karen.  I miss being hopeful.  I miss being loved.

I miss Karen.

18 July, 2012

In honor of Henry

In honor of the anniversary of losing Henry, Larry ran around like a maniac chasing a feather and then started lifting the toy on his own and Bernie went after it.....

16 July, 2012


In the compressed, florescent light of the ambulance, Manuel thought the green bottle looked just like a toy lighter he had tried to purchase for 25 cents in a vending machine. The green plastic enticed him, itself a reminder of the bottom of the kitchen glasses which broke easily when he knocked them off the table when he was 2 and 3 years old. He squished the bottle and almost cracked it. “Young man, we need that.” The paramedic pulled her voice back a bit and rubbed the boy's shoulders. “We need to know what your mommy took, so we can help her.” The boy handed it over silently.

Destiny Torres-Shapiro was not an unfamiliar face to the nurses in the Shalom Aleichem Memorial Hospital Emergency Room. A year ago, her mother Stacey had found Destiny listless in the doorway to her apartment building. Six months later, Dmitri Shapiro, her ex-husband, drove Destiny from the restaurant bathroom where he found her attempting to throw up the overdose she had just taken. He waited with her until they found a nurse named Devon who watched over her until she was admitted. “What if my patients see me,” he explained as he wiped Destiny's forehead. Still, he was angry when she didn't call him to pick her up when she was released a week later. He hadn't intended his practical concerns to overshadow his desire to be her hero and her one true love. In his mind, he was sure Destiny knew how much he cared for her and that she could rely on him, always. He had left her in capable hands – and he had stayed for hours until she was properly supervised.

The nurses felt sorry for Destiny, and didn't think she was an incapable mother to her children. She obviously had some personal turmoil, and while they liked Dmitri, they referred to him as "the guy she hangs with" even when they were married. When he was a resident in Internal Medicine, he spent his time with a crew of young Russian doctors known for smoking outside of the ER and keeping two cell phones, one for their wives and one for their girlfriends. If he wasn't unfaithful (and they weren't sure) he enjoyed the ersatz Sinatra bad boy image of the others, and made no attempt to separate himself even from their notorious drinking escapades. He even wore the "bling" -- a pinky ring of diamonds, an opal and diamonds on another finger, and a gold chain bracelet, sometimes with diamonds, as well. The wedding band (and they were all married) was super-ornate, Dmitri's and Destiny's in carved, block Jewish letters (she converted for the marriage, officially at any rate.) So, if anything, they saw Dmitri as more suspect than Destiny.

No one, in fact, saw Destiny's employment for Child Protective Services as ironic. Her kids were well-fed and well-spoken. They dreaded more what would happen to them if they left a world which was unstable, but basically safe and which they understood well. Although Dmitri was a nice enough stepfather and they believed the grandmother helped with raising the children, they saw the children's characters as gentle replicas of their mothers, especially their manners, their natural curiosity about medicine and their above average compassion. They were thoroughly, "nice kids" and the thought of placing them into foster care was never considered. All of the ER staff had seen their share of incompetent parents and of parents who were basically good, but had personal traumas and they saw Destiny among the latter. Finally, the drugs that Destiny took weren't really lethal, but were overdoses of medications for pain and anxiety. The psychiatric teams themselves saw Destiny as someone who wasn't trying to kill herself, but needed better help managing. They only wished they had the time to be able to fully help her. However, no one felt tht she or the children should be uprooted, unless Destiny herself felt otherwise, or things deteriorated.

 Destiny was not completely unhappy, either, and she still felt affection for her ex-husband. When she had come out of the hospital, six months ago, it was Dmitri whom Destiny called as soon as her mother had left after bringing her home. She took him to dinner in Chinatown, where they always went whenever they wanted to escape their identities. Then she gave him a massage and slept alongside him. But, she couldn't sustain the calm. Her rhythms were spun around Manuel and Damaris, children of her high school sweetheart and first husband. She loved them and had built a silent world in which they never had to explain anything to one another. She felt unfaithful to them – and she was – whenever she lived in the adult world of explanations and distinctions. There was nothing more satisfying than holding on to both of them after a day of playing at the beach or at home. She didn't know how to explain to them that the purity was sometimes too much and also too fragile. When she was with them too long, she lost her ability to defend herself, and thereby care for them. If she was to work in the world of adults, she needed practice. Dr. Dmitri Shapiro had wanted nothing more than to protect her when she met him, two years ago. He was ready to adopt her kids, create a home. Much as she held one foot in what her grandmother had called the “normal world,” Destiny was afraid she couldn't manage it full-time. Why had she had children, then? An insatiable need to love and nurture. She knew she could do this, if she could do so unnoticed, far away from crowds, especially of those who were familiar. Like everything else in Destiny's life, however, this certainty was undermined by an opposing truth. There was nowhere else besides the thirty blocks in which she had grown up in which she could survive most effectively. She didn't know how to drive and, taken out of context of the Hispanic and European immigrant neighborhoods of Brooklyn in which she grew up, people couldn't parse her fast speech or inexplicable fears of space, the dark and of being stranded without buses or trains.

 Manuel already knew, if nothing else, how in danger his mother felt. She had stopped sleeping weeks ago and was living on the tablets in green bottles. The hall closet was full of bottles, some of which she pulled out and used for his sister and for him when they were ill. The hoarded medication was a safeguard against needing to go to the doctor. His mother had a gift for diagnosing her family's ills, and whenever they did go to the doctor, she demanded prescriptions with refill after refill, which she filled, noting their uses should similar illnesses appear in their house again. It mortified her when she found out it was Manuel who had to call 911 this time. She hadn't meant to kill herself, but was in the habit of overdosing on pain and anti-anxiety medications when she was frightened. Sometimes she slept it off without notice. Manuel had a system for how to tell if this was a dangerous moment. Whenever he saw his mother asleep, he breathed with her for about a minute. If the process wasn't smooth in any way, he picked up the phone. Even when another adult was making the decision, Manuel checked his mother's breathing, to be sure.

 When Dmitri arrived at the ER, Manuel was riding on the shoulders of Patrick, a gregarious African-American male nurse with a surprisingly thick, Yiddish accent. Having grown up in the Hasidic area surrounding the hospital, Patrick absorbed the accents of his neighbors. His mother was also a nurse, and her familiarity with the elderly parents of her neighbors (who perforce she often cared for in the cardiology wing of Shalom Aleichem), made most of their families at ease with her zealously curious son, and he had grown up with the unusual privilege of visiting their schools and synagogues, as well as eating frequent meals at their tables. Only the children of the most severe sects did not acknowledge him, and Patrick was an expert at distinguishing by their clothes and the style of their side locks of hair who was Satmar and who was from the more-welcoming Lubavitch fiefdoms. He'd learned, too, the derogatory Yiddish slang that one group used about another and more generally upon anyone with whom they felt enmity. What she didn't pick up herself, Patrick eagerly taught his mother. Consequently, everyone regardless of sect, knew not to curse around Patrick or his mother because they could turn around and double the offense. Plus, they could find nearly everyone's addresses, schools and favorite places to shop. Patrick's mother was prized among the highest customers at the local butchers and fish markets because she not only had discriminating tastes, but she was far nicer to the servers and delivery people than most of her neighbors. Cross Amanda Davis, her son, or her quiet, Englsh teacher husband Tom and you might never get a good white fish or shoulder steak again. Even though Tom kept his distance from practically everyone, claiming the noise of his classroom made it impossible for him to listen to human speech after 3:25pm, he could sense if what was being said about him was disparaging from the tone, and he knew that anything ending with the word, “Yaaam” - river in Hebrew in Yiddish, could not be good.

 “Gantz be'Seder?” asked Dmitri in his broken Yiddish, of Patrick. “Gantz is Meshugah!” responded Patrick, gently placing Manuel on the counter top of the large nurse's station at the center of ER. Unlike most hospitals, the ER at Sholom Aleichem moved slowly and carefully. Most of the patients were elderly people who came in because they hadn't seen a doctor in a long while. Urinary tract infections, chronic headaches and stomach problems. Some terminal patients who needed more home care than their insurance paid for would call when their pain was too severe or they're symptoms took a dramatic turn which they did not understand. Then there were people like Destiny and the patient in the bed next to hers. No one knew exactly how Herman Diamond had arrived in ER. He was a resident in a nearby nursing home. Had they just wheeled him in and left him? Someone early in the evening had been able to establish that he had throat cancer in the later stages (hence the breathing tube in his neck.) Periodically, he coughed loudly, but what exactly were they to do? Destiny reminded each new crew of nurses who looked in on Herman and began to ask him for basic information, “They already asked him that, it's all in his chart. They're trying to get his records from the nursing home.” It had quieted down around Herman when Manuel had jumped on Patrick's shoulders.

 Just as Dmitri and Patrick had begun to go over the details of Destiny's episode, however, Herman started to wheeze. Bending forward as if for speed, a nurse bolted from across ER, pulling the curtain around Herman as she looked for the suction bag and found that Herman was in the one bed at which no such machine existed. She screamed this out and an older nurse moved seamlessly behind his bed and set the equipment up. “Don't move,” said the younger nurse as she began to pull the fluid from Herman's chest. The sound of gagging under-water peeled from behind the curtain. “Please, sir, don't move!” A teenage voiced female nurse shouted as she shifted the curtain to enter, “He has a DNR.” But, the other nurse insisted, “I don't think we're there, yet,” removing the last bit of phlegm and replacing the breathing tube gently in the space in Herman's neck. “Patrick, he needs a new tube. We need to fit him for a new one. Call Respiratory and ask for Holman,” beckoned the nurse who had done the suction. To Dmitri, this nurse appeared to be in her very early 30's, thinner than the rail which held the curtain-rod, with a wide-boned, smooth burnt yellow skin and face of the Mongol conquerors he had seen in the copies of the silk paintings by the thirteenth century artist Qian Xuan which hung in the coffee-stained dispatcher's office in which his father worked. Patrick grabbed the phone, and for the first time all night, Herman was heard speaking into his own cell phone. His voice was thin,sounding more like static on a soft radio. Ten minutes later, his 18 year old son Mohammed, dressed in a baseball cap, a bright red polo shirt, sagging jeans and squeaky new dunks, ran into the ER, and sat down next to Dmitri while Manuel slept in Destiny's arms.

05 July, 2012

Voluntary Redundancy

As I was reading The Guardian this morning, I noticed reference to a very curious phrase called, "Voluntary Redundancy." This roughly translates to a buyout by a company of select workers -- with a generous severance pay offer. After a little research, I found The Guardian, had done a longer piece on the fact that companies were likely to offer many workers this option, given job projections in Britain. When faced with such an offer, a woman in publishing noted: "It was a lot of money and could have nearly paid off my mortgage. I decided against in the end because I wasn't certain I would find other work, but I'm still not sure I made the right decision." ("What to do if you are offered Voluntary Redundancy," Jill Insley, The Guardian February 26, 2010.) Typically, as with incentive packages offered in the private sector in the US, Voluntary Redundancy packages are 10 - 12 months pay. That doesn't sound anything like the buyout which was discussed (and seems to have disappeared) by the DOE. If we are to be expected to follow a more corporate model in education, why isn't the DOE acting more like a business and offering a reasonable incentive to those whom it wishes to take a buyout? Not that a buyout would really help me, even if it were this generous.

 There's nothing else I am qualified to do but teach, and I can't face the next eleven years on one year's salary. Nor can I use it to train to become something else -- it won't cover any private education tuition, and should I even get into a public school for re-training, what will I use to live on? However, such a buyout might be viable for people who are or five years away from retirement, if they can also start to receive their pensions. The small incentive numbers (Walcott said something about looking at what was offered in Dallas - 2 to 10,000 dollars, in that case) wouldn't really help anyone. If you are renting an apartment for, say, 1,500 a month, why would you take an offer that didn't even cover a year's rent? It's bizarre that a DOE working under a mayor who is a businessman would offer packages that would have no place in a corporate model. Often these packages include maintaining some of the benefits that the job offered, so no one can argue that any benefits UFT workers might get to keep from a buyout outweigh the small cash package. Corporations in Britain, anyway, also offer job re-training programs. Do you know how impossibly difficult it is to try to get a different job if you have spent your life teaching? Such programs might be very valuable to someone who can't quite manage to live on whatever his/her pension might be, but could supplement his/her income if he/she had new skills. Again, this wouldn't help me, and frankly, what I want is to continue to work in education because I actually like teaching. 

 However, if I were three years away from retirement and could start to collect my pension, I could take an offer of a year's salary and re-training. A big, "IF," but there are people out there for whom this might be a reality. People who take Voluntary Redundancy also have the option of returning to their companies -- in the same way, I guess as people can work F-Status, or just come out of retirement. If someone were to do this, he/she might also bring new skills and experience to his/her position. This would enrich the school environment. Now, this is all not viable for me, and not something I would would want "at this point in my career." Unlike the many interviewers whom I have faced who look at my years of experience and have used the latter phrase to imply my experience and age would make me unwilling to work hard, I WANT TO TAKE MY EXPERIENCE and really put it to work on the job. I feel frustrated that I can't do this. That I can't, finally, use what I know to improve a situation. Then, after being allowed to come close to completing my life's work, if the economy were still in bad shape - in about 8 -10 years, I might be ready for a buyout.

20 May, 2012

Larry will be writing more in the summer

Larry wanted to take this opportunity to apologize for not keeping up with his part of the blog. He's been busy, but is quite well and eager to write. He's been doing a lot of important caring for the Bernster, me and others. Plus, he got his teeth cleaned and he's been turning down toothpaste commercials, left and right. Soon...

What we talk about when we talk about the UFT

Forgive me, it's been a long time since I have posted, and I have to be brief. It's popular for blogs written by and for teachers to be anti-UFT. Recently, some blogs even picked up on the heinous story by the NY Post about UFT president Michael Mulgrew's alleged affair. In doing this, all we are doing is picking up the public's gauntlet and using it to beat ourselves. This is exactly what people want to read. The anti-teacher sentiment which has been engendered by political figures at every government level thrives on the rhetoric and techniques of witch hunts. When I have had complaints about the UFT, I have been pretty direct in making them -- to the UFT members in question. If I went unheard, I found a way to get the individual in question to hear me. As I have said on other occasions, I have been helped a great deal both by Unity members of the UFT and members of alternative factions. What I like about both groups -- people like ICE, GEM, etc. is that they are actually trying to do something, not just complain. When we complain publicly about any group of teachers (or teacher) we reinforce stereotypes which are being capitalized upon in the current climate. More than this, we waste time. Don't stop questioning what anyone does, but do stop getting involved in tangents. Keep asking -- keep the dialogue going, if not in the forum in which you started, then in another, BETWEEN YOU AND SOMEONE WHO ACTUALLY CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE. WASTING TIME JABBING AT ANYONE doesn't help. I'm "putting this out there" because this IS a general point. When my mother was working for the city, she got enormous help both from her own union, and from advice of other unions, all of them for Blue Collar jobs. No matter what complaints she or others in her job title had, they didn't waste time complaining about other workers. My mother had meetings directly with the head of the Dept. of Health of NYC, she had meetings with leaders of her union and even asked for advice from leaders of other unions. That's how she managed for the over 30 years she worked. If you are going to say times have changed, I'll say this: Willie Loman didn't have a union. Had he worked as a construction worker, he would have had a union.

22 February, 2012

Unchained Memory

November 23 went by and I forgot it was your birthday. I probably had no idea it was November 23rd. On Dec 1, I took a month leave to deal with my health. All I could do was find out what was wrong and it was time to go back. I'm trying to address things now. Karen, I miss you and I am more shaped by your loss than I want to be. I want to be shaped by what I found in you, not to seem trite and obvious. I still don't believe it.