On the Passing of My Mother


Ruth, 1944

On November  27, 2017, my mother Ruth passed away at the age of 91. Her death was sudden, unexpected, despite her advanced age and the fact that she was frail and 5 years into a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease isn’t what killed her, but it did rob her of what made her the person we all knew.

My mother was a born elementary school teacher, who took the greatest of pleasure in her chosen profession. Her other passions were gardening and reading. Her calm, Zen-like, live-and-let-live spirit, and good humor were how I most remember her, but she was also a mother bear who looked out for and defended us when necessary. She had a soft heart and encouraged us to take in wounded and orphaned birds until they were healed and ready to launch; likewise, if one of our friends needed a helping hand, she never needed to be asked twice. Ruth’s love of her career also set an example for me of how important work was, especially for women, and she encouraged me to find work I enjoyed and which left room for family if I chose to have one. Ruth was aways there for me during some difficult times as a young mother, when I felt overwhelmed and exhausted. Her advice was always so grounded, practical, and calm.

It was painful to see the person who she truly was unwind into something the disease created. Even in the terrible last year, she could occasionally rally, and there were always her beautiful blue eyes to look into, even when she had little to say.

Her funeral was a traditional Jewish burial with a graveside service, held on a cold day in early December. The rabbi gave us pins to wear with black ribbon that we tore to symbolize how Jews used to tear their clothing to show their grief and loss. We spoke about Ruth and recalled her goodness and joie de vivre. Once the coffin was lowered, we took turns filling the grave with shovelfuls of dirt. I dropped in a tiny red cardinal ornament because cardinals were her favorite bird and she loved putting out the sunflower seeds they sought at her feeder–just as I do now each day.

These are the words that I spoke at her graveside, and some photos of her over the years.

My mother was the real deal. Before there were “health foods,” my mother subjected our meals and desserts to a sprinkling of wheat germ. Before the word “feminist” was something I even understood, my mother refused to buy me a Barbie doll because she said it was a terrible example for young girls of what women really looked like. And when I begged her for white go-go boots in 3rd grade, she made it clear that I’d have to pass on that fashion statement as well.

Ruth set an example for me that went beyond dolls and shoes. She was a first-generation American, the daughter of Russian immigrants. The 1930 census, when Ruth was 4, lists her father Charlie as a rag dealer who spoke Yiddish and had no schooling beyond elementary grades. Ruth was the first in her family to graduate from college—NYU in 1948. 

She became an elementary school teacher. When I was 9 or 10 she went back to teaching full time. Over the years, I visited her classroom many times and saw what a great teacher she was and how much the children loved her. Her classroom was like controlled chaos. I called it her 3-ring circus. There were bird nests, rocks, collections of seeds and milkweed pods; a bird feeder hung outside the window that the children could watch. Kids were scattered around the classroom doing different things as my mother moved around the room, making it look easy. It wasn’t easy. One year, she had a child who had to be held or have her hand held for many hours of the school day, and so my mother did just that as she taught the class. In the early 1970s, the Yonkers teachers’ union went on strike—which was illegal– and my mother was out on the picket line, waving her sign and wearing a wig to hide her identity, like other strike leaders, because the city had threatened to arrest the leaders. Unlike the other strikers, my mother wore a yellow wool mop. Why waste money on a real wig? She was never one to be concerned with vanity. And she didn’t get scared; she understood how important the living wage was, how we benefited from her health insurance, and that her future pension would help my father and her have a more comfortable retirement.

Ruth was always one to roll up her sleeves. I remember when we were living in Los Angeles while David went to law school, and Mitchell and Lorraine’s son Laszlo had just been born. My parents flew out right away to see him. To my amazement, my mother opened her suitcase and took out rubber gloves and some cleaning tools she’d packed and announced she was going to clean Mitchell and Lorraine’s apartment so they’d come home to a clean apartment with the new baby. Years later, when we had children and my parents drove the 2 hours out to NJ to babysit for us, we’d return from an evening out and find the kitchen clean and dishes done, and my father napping in preparation for the long drive back, while my mother, still up,  waited for us, reading the New York Times or doing the crossword puzzle.

My mother was, for most of her life, physically strong and enduring. Every summer she and David swam across Efner Lake, at the upstate cabin, scaring my father into taking the boat out to tail her, though she did not need his shadow. She swam out to the middle of the lake into her early 80s, wearing her glasses and white bathing cap while she swam the breast stroke with her head out of water to keep the glasses on. She did all her own gardening, filling the tiny space with beautiful flowers, fig trees, raspberries, and poppies. David and I have figs and raspberries that started out as cuttings she brought to us 20 years ago, and we treasure their bounty every year.

In the last 2 years, I believed I’d already lost my mother to Alzheimer’s disease. Yet even though this terrible disease robbed my mother of her memory, strength, confidence, and sense of humor, she was still the one who remembered to ask me, “And how are you?? What are the children doing? How is David’s work?” We could still share our love of sweets with a trip to Carvel. But many visits were profoundly depressing as she started to forget so many things. Still, each time I pulled out my phone and scrolled through the many photographs I have of flowers, my pottery, the beach, our dogs, she was still riveted by art, beauty, and images of animals or nature. On the refrigerator, there is still her handwritten note that says, “We are hardwired to make art.”

Throughout the house, there are many of these little notes taped to bulletin boards and the refrigerator, testifying to the things Ruth loved. There are numerous sweet love notes to my father, to whom she was married for 69 years. Other notes praise trees, dogs, wilderness, and birds. There is one note that I particularly love: “Talk not of wasted affections. Affection is never wasted.”   

Just 2 weeks ago, on what was to be my last visit with Ruth, David chatted with Herb upstairs while we sat at the dining room table downstairs. She asked me over and over what were the names of her four grandchildren, where they lived, how old they were, and what they were doing. Finally, she asked me to write the information on a piece of paper so she could look at it whenever she wanted. I covered 2 sides of the paper with the facts, and she read it repeatedly. Then we shared a toasted bagel. As I got up to leave, she said, “This was a great visit! I’m so glad you came!”

I didn’t know it was going to be the last time we spoke and I left feeling so happy that we had had a rare upbeat moment together. While I’m glad her suffering is over, I am sorry that I have now truly lost her. But as my mother was a tremendous optimist, not at all a true Syrop, I’ll end with the words on a note she posted directly across from her bed, where she could read it each day, written by the poet Stanley Kunitz:

“I can scarcely wait til tomorrow when a new life begins for me, as it does each day, as it does each day.”



Woofie2 2


Just Another National “Moment”?

The latest revelations about Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, and a succession of men who occupy positions of power in all manner of fields send me back to the time about 25 years ago, a few months after our first child was born, when I was home watching the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings unfolding on TV as my baby son napped. I watched with horror as Anita Hill was vilified, minimized, and, of course, not believed by the roomful of men judging her worthiness to speak truth to their power. On top of it, the Congressmen implied Hill was responsible for bringing such unmentionable, crude matters as Long Dong Silver and pubic hairs in Coke cans into American living rooms, as if she was the one–not Clarence Thomas– who had been inflicting this pornography-inspired subject matter on the people he worked with. The Senators were killing the messenger, circling the wagons, and making sure that this ripple working its way into public consciousness would not make a real dent in the patriarchy.

It was obvious to me, and many others that Anita Hill was speaking the truth and did  so at her own peril only because, as an accomplished lawyer and law professor, she knew how high the stakes were when a man who behaved the way Clarence Thomas did could be nominated to a lifetime appointment in the nation’s highest court. You cannot reach adulthood as a woman in this country without having experienced, at the very least, sexual harassment at work, from professors, leering and groping men on subways and buses, and menacing neighbors, or at the neighborhood muffin store. Unfortunately, many women experience far worse than harassment and groping, in the form of assault and rape. But what I remember is that the takedown of Anita Hill was so effortless. The men in Congress didn’t lose any sleep over how they were treating her and what lengths they were going to in order to both discredit her but build up Thomas’s believability. And that included Joe Biden, who colluded with committee Republicans Arlen Spector and Orrin Hatch to quash several female witnesses who could have supported Hill’s allegations. The message that was transmitted so clearly was that Anita Hill was insignificant, a tiresome woman–there was a whispering campaign that she was probably a spurned lover!!– making a fuss about nothing–and, anyway, that nothing hadn’t happened in the first place, because the men said it didn’t. In all likelihood, they were living in glass houses and didn’t wish to throw stones at Clarence Thomas.

So the Hill/Thomas hearing was a national “moment,” and it didn’t amount to much. Little of what has been written in response to the current revelations of sexual violence and harassment address what is at the root of the behavior we’re discussing yet again: a patriarchal system that feminist writer Bell Hooks explains is like any system of domination. It relies on socializing men and women alike to believe that there are inferior and superior parties in all relationships. This patriarchal system requires boys and men to see themselves as superior to women and to do whatever is necessary to remain in control of women. Nothing will change until we reject the idea that patriarchy is somehow the natural order of things, part of human nature, and start talking about how we got to a place where, as Masha Gessen notes, the power imbalance allows some men to take women hostage using sex.

How can this be changed? Punishment will only deter a few. No, the change has to come from the roots and move forward. Hooks said that parenting is political, and she challenges us to be willing to change the way we raise our children because that is the only way to make real, long-term change. For many years when my boys were young I worried about how to raise them to respect and value women and not be afraid to show vulnerability–without at the same time putting those boys in the crosshairs of schoolyard bullies and adult shamers if they weren’t “manly” or “hard” enough. I had vivid childhood memories of elementary and middle school bullies beating up and taunting other boys, and no adults intervened. The issue became less academic and more real when our older son entered elementary school, at which point whatever we modeled as parents and however many times we read Ferdinand to him, we could not control or change how other children and adults reacted during the school day. If a boy is perceived as too “soft,” it will not go well for him. I remember worrying if the boys cried “too easily” and wondered what would happen if they did so at school. As a mother, I wanted to encourage my boys to fully express their feelings and to feel safe doing so, but I knew that if they did so in public, they’d be bullied and shamed. It seemed to me that mothers are forced to walk a fine line, nurturing their son’s so-called soft side, but not so much that they couldn’t “fit in” with other boys, and eventually, men.

Maybe things are better now than they were in the mid-1990s, but what I saw at my son’s elementary school was disquieting. I went on all his class trips from kindergarten through third grade because he might need an insulin shot while away from school and there was no one to do so on a trip, so  I had the opportunity to hear children taunting other kids on the bus, to hear kids who were only 8 years old telling others about sordid, sensationalist scenes from the Sallie Jessie Raphael TV talk show they’d watched, and one boy in particular called other boys a “faggot” many times inside the bus as well as shouting it out the window at random passersby. None of this elicited any response from the busily chatting teachers in the front of the bus. I’m sorry to say that at the time I was following the unwritten rule of never speaking out to someone else’s kid. That was something the teachers were supposed to do, but it never happened.  I can’t say the behavior I witnessed was the sole reason we decided to leave the public school and send our sons to a Quaker school, but it certainly played a part in the decision. Sure, Quaker schools have their own craziness to contend with, but it is the kind of crazy that at least errs on the side of making efforts to address the more awful things that go on between kids, especially in middle school, when parents and teachers tend to look the other way and say, “Let them sort it out themselves.” That’s fine if your kid is not the one being bullied and taunted.

In “The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love,” Hooks points out that how men are raised (and let’s not forget that women are heavily involved in how boys are raised) has a tremendous impact on the lives of both sexes. The patriarchal system demands of all males that they systematically kill off the emotional parts of themselves until they grow into men who are closed off, unable to understand their feelings, and eventually unable to feel at all. Men who are unable to examine their emotions, feelings, and anger are unable to feel any empathy or care about another person and that makes it easy to do what they want to them in the advancement of their own demands and needs. From a young age the patriarchy teaches men that it is their right–natural, in fact–to use  violence and aggression to get what they want–from women and men. A man should take what he wants; if he has to ignore boundaries to subjugate and win at all costs, that is his right. The woman across the desk or room is not an individual with needs and rights equal to his own, so he can act as  he wants to. And the inability to connect with others carries with it an inability to assume responsibility for causing them pain, Hooks points out. When I read the apologies most of the men in the news are writing–if they apologize at all, since Louis C.K. “acknowledged” that he had indeed forced women to watch him masturbate but he did not apologize. The wording of these apologies often states, “I apologize IF the women were injured, IF they feel they were hurt. If, if, if.  In other words, I’m so sorry IF I’ve offended you, others might not have been offended when I did the same thing.

If men are this cut off from their feelings, their ability to discern boundaries, to care about another person, how will they be available emotionally to their girlfriends, wives, and children–something the majority of women say they want from their husbands and lovers. Carl Jung said that where the will to power is paramount, love will be lacking. Men can’t dominate women and still truly love them, like them, or respect them.

Writing recently in Rolling Stone, Carina Chocano said that Harvey Weinstein’s pattern of behavior is emblematic of a patriarchal system that runs on power differentials. “It’s not just Weinstein, or Hollywood,” she notes. It’s corporate America, the legislature, everywhere you look, because it’s based on patriarchy: a system of oppression in action.    “Flexing power to coerce sex from the less powerful isn’t natural, it’s abuse,” Chocana says.  “And abuse is not natural, it’s cultural.” Abuse flows from a socially-sanctioned sense of entitlement that emanates from a patriarchal belief that men are entitled to more control over everything and all women.

Patriarchy has no gender, Hooks reminds us. Children come into the world with an ability to love and be loved, she says, but we shouldn’t assume that they do not need to learn how to love and receive guidance from adults in the ways to express love and respect others. Just because a boy might be raised by his mother, it doesn’t mean that a mother doesn’t have a patriarchal mindset. We women have absorbed the lessons of the patriarchy about masculinity and how it’s acted out, and as mothers we reinforce its dictums that to “be a man” or a “real man,” a boy or young man must not be soft and give in to his feelings. We tell boys not to cry, that it is better to be indifferent to their feelings and be strong and silent. But if you take that far enough, do it often enough, that boy/man will eventually not feel anything. And we’ll be having this same conversation in another 25 years.


The Circle

I’ll risk sounding like another idiotic white liberal with the posting of this entry. Guilty as charged.  Last winter I began volunteering  at a food pantry in Trenton, NJ, after a friend invited me along to see if I’d like to join him when he volunteers each Thursday helping shoppers at the pantry. The organization that runs the pantry also runs housing and job support programs from the same location, as well as an urban vegetable garden a few doors down the street. Some of the people assisting at the food pantry are themselves part of a jobs program, others are volunteers. There’s also a very dedicated paid staff and a cast of characters who drive and unload the trucks that pull up to the curb, unloading the heavy skids of food cartons from the front to the back of the store where the freezers, walk-ins, and freight elevators are.

The pantry building is a busy place in the morning, with shoppers often lined up outside waiting for the doors to open when we get there at 8:45 a.m. in even the coldest of temperatures. Once we open, they must show identification and await their turns to be processed and receive cards identifying how many points they have to shop with in the food pantry. The number of points depends on family size. They wait for an available shopping cart and one of the volunteers to guide them through the store as they make selections, and once done, we pack the bags and help them outside if they need help.

There are times when the pantry is well stocked, and other times when the staff juggles mightily to keep enough on the shelves, especially enough frozen chicken and eggs. Sometimes there is frozen fish and fresh fruit and vegetables or donated bread from a local bakery. The number of shoppers increases when there are big holidays coming and as the month progresses and families’ money reserves get depleted. The pantry directors are constantly worrying about cuts in food donations, decreased budgets to purchase food, using up the fresh food on shelves before it goes bad, and keeping the shelves stocked in the face of rising numbers of patrons and increasing food insecurity in the very depressed capital city of New Jersey. I don’t say “worry” lightly, either. The hunger prevention coordinator loses sleep over the food supply and comes in on days off and weekends to deal with all sorts of problems with refrigerators and elevators. The pantry is not far from the gold-domed State House and the courts, where thousands of people work in state offices each day, and where funding decisions for food insecurity are being made.

The volunteers are a varied group. Some are retired or empty-nesters, but one is a graduate student, another has a son in middle school. We come from all over the county in which the pantry is located and are occasionally joined by groups of volunteers from a Quaker school or local businesses.

It’s hard to explain what I’ve learned in my months at the pantry. It may sound trite to ask and answer the question, “What does food insecurity look like?” that is, just “who” are our shoppers, because food insecurity affects so many people who didn’t expect to need help. Shoppers sometimes tell us a little about themselves. Last week one of the shoppers was a former Atlantic City police officer. There are veterans of the war in Iraq, veterans of the Vietnam war, many elderly people, and people who worked steadily for decades in businesses in the area but found themselves jobless, overnight in some cases, in their late 50s and early 60s–cut adrift a few years from retirement and now unable to find work. Some shoppers are missing limbs; others have hardly any teeth and must choose only the softest foods to eat. (I’m controlling myself here and saving a tirade about dentistry for another blog post.)  Some are now caring for grandchildren. Some folks come in a group van because they are autistic or have emotional problems. Quite a few shoppers have chronic health conditions, which they tell us about by way of explanation for why they don’t want any pasta or rice or even slightly sweetened Corn Flakes. Some come in wheelchairs or use walkers. There are some people who clearly have problems with drugs and alcohol, though it isn’t always immediately obvious. There are a few people who are demanding, but they are in the minority. Most shoppers are grateful for the food, and some are apologetic that they need to use a pantry at all. They may share their history because it matters to them to have you know they haven’t always needed assistance. Others just share their history because they badly need to talk to someone. Shoppers come alone, or with their kids and grandkids; they come on bikes, on foot, by bus, in cars. Some are dressed well, others have duct tape holding together the seams in their coats. They speak English, Spanish, French, and Polish.

Some, like me, are cooking-challenged, going for the microwavable foods and simple-to-heat soups and pastas. But others shop the way my husband does, with meals in mind, viewing ingredients and thinking about potential dishes. In fact, we have one shopper who cooks amazing meals and arranges them in beautiful presentations that he catalogues through pictures. He posts them on Facebook with links to the organization website to demonstrate how you can make healthy and delicious meals with only ingredients from the pantry and a little imagination: pineapple chicken, chicken with spinach, chicken tacos, grilled tuna steaks, rice balls, desserts made from frozen fruit. He’s telegenic and practical. We tell him, “You’re better than Rachel Ray.” He replies, “That’s what my wife says!”

I can no longer count how many times shoppers say, “Thank you. Thank all of you. It is a blessing that you are here.”  At first all the talk of God was a little jarring for me, especially when a lay minister grabbed my hand and launched into an impromptu group prayer to give thanks for the Pantry volunteers, but now I’ve learned to take it in stride and am glad for the comfort their faith gives them in this harsh world.

Over the last month, I’ve been bringing used books from my mother-in-law’s apartment as we clean it out after she died. The pantry has a few small shelves in the waiting area with books that shoppers can take home or look at while waiting. I left a number of dictionaries, thesauruses, and many children’s books. An elderly man came through the pantry with a Webster’s Ninth edition dictionary already in his cart. I asked him about the books and he said, “I’ve always wanted a dictionary!” I can’t stop thinking about that. I used to read dictionaries and encyclopedias for fun when I was kid. My house was filled with them. I’ve checked back on those shelves and there is not one dictionary or thesaurus left. The Klutz-series of books with built-in watercolors and nice paper are gone too.

One of the volunteers noticed that some people hesitated to take cans that didn’t have pull tops and she brought in a few can openers for what is called the Extras shelf. They were gone within an hour. Today I brought in 10 more and they too flew off the shelves. No one thinks about these low-tech analogue products anymore, but there is a tremendous need for the simplest of things: soap, shampoo, toothpaste and toothbrushes, and women’s sanitary napkins, all expensive items that are necessities if you’re job hunting.

Today we were asked to stop all activities for 5 minutes and join with shoppers, other volunteers, and employees for a small gathering in the front hall mid-morning.  The YWCA has for some years chosen April 27th to pledge to stand against racism, and the Pantry decided to join in that effort. I admit that I thought this was going to be pretty hokey and uncomfortable. I felt very privileged and inauthentic standing there with my pledge paper. I tend toward the cynical, am not a joiner, certainly not a believer, and I have trouble with kumbaya moments. But “my” shopper and I stopped what we were doing and joined the circle. We were given papers with the pledge printed out, and we stood in a circle—shoppers, volunteers, and staff–reciting the pledge together, which begins, “I take this pledge, fully aware that the struggle to overcome and eliminate racism will not end with a mere pledge, but calls for an ongoing transformation within myself and society.”

After we finished reading the entire pledge, we were asked if anyone wished to say anything. There was silence for a few seconds. Then a pantry customer spoke. “Well,” he said, “we all need to care for each other. That’s what it’s about. We just need to take care of each other.”  Another shopper nodded and said, “We have to remember: there are more good people out there than bad.” The shopper I had been taking through the store said, “We have to speak up when we see something wrong. Not just take our phones out and take pictures. We have to speak up right then!”

I was near tears by this point. Fortunately we all headed back to what we had been doing before the Pledge was read. Those with the least reason to have faith in humanity had the most faith. That restored some of my lost faith in America in 2016.

Squirrelzilla: Resurgence


This is the story of a cross-species battle, of antagonism tempered by empathy, curiosity, and, yes, even respect. The title is an homage to a Godzilla film of a similar name (www.rottentomatoes.com/m/godzilla_resurgence/).

The Beginning

It all started with a new car. In August 2015 I became the proud owner of a baby blue VW Beetle convertible. It is perhaps shallow, but nonetheless true: I love this car. The convertible top is cream colored and the car is a lovely light blue. Mr Spock stands on my dashboard presiding over beach stones with his tricorder.



By April 2016 the Beetle had accumulated 10,000 miles, so I made an appointment with the VW dealer for a 10,000-mile oil change. I drove the car there, borrowed one of their loaners for the rest of the day, and drove away. Maybe 10 minutes later my phone rang. The VW service agent asked, “Ma’am, have you driven through a pile of leaves recently?” Of course not. “Did any of the dashboard lights go on when you were driving here?” No, no lights, no sounds, nothing. “Well, you better come back right away and see what’s under your hood,” he said.  So I drove back to the dealer, to find my Beetle parked close to the service entrance with the hood up and several men gathered around it, peering into the engine. “There’s a huge nest in here,” one of them said, as he pulled out a few large sticks and a bunch of leaves and grass. “Must be a squirrel.” And so it began.


It was indeed a huge nest, but there were no critters in it at the moment. Unfortunately, when they cleaned out the leaves and grass and checked the wires and connections beneath it, the squirrel had not only made a nice bed, it had satiated its appetite to the tune of $1400 worth of wires, covers, and relays. I called the insurance company to make arrangements, and the VW dealer said the car would be ready in about a week. I kept the loaner, a red Jetta.

About 3 days later I was at a local farm picking up some cider. It occurred to me that it might be a good idea to check under the hood of the Jetta loaner, just for the hell of it. You guessed it. There was the beginning of another nest. I called the dealer. This time they didn’t sound very friendly. “You’d better get the car back here immediately,” the customer service representative said, exasperation and blame in his voice. When I parked the Jetta next to the service entrance, the service guys again gathered around the engine. The service manager was pretty worked up. I would be liable for anything over $125 on the loaner, he said. David came to pick me up and we drove down the road to a car rental place to get a car for a weekend trip I had to make.  The dealer called to say the damage on the Jetta was minimal enough not to charge me, but they sounded pissed off, like somehow I had been negligent about warding off Squirrelzilla after the first attack on the Beetle. Like I’d grown complacent and lazy. “Maybe there’s something wrong with VWs,” I countered, feeling sure of myself. Our other household cars–my son’s 1996 Volvo and David’s Mini–were completely untouched. Or so I thought.


That night after work, we checked the Mini, a car David drives every day. We opened the hood with confidence. You see where this is going. Another nest, and more chewing. The chewing looked like it was centered on only the hood baffling and one connection–the wiper fluid hose. We were floored. We called the Mini dealer, and they promised to send out a tow truck. Several hours later, the tow truck arrived. David was talking at length with the driver, a burly young guy who listened with weed-fueled calm to the serial tale of squirrel woes. “Well, you’ve got a pregnant female,” he said, like it was the most natural, obvious conclusion one could arrive at. “Oh, yeah,” he said, “and she’s going to keep building and building nests until she has the babies.” He recounted his boyhood summers on his grandfather’s South Jersey farm, where they had built nesting boxes for the mother squirrels to have their babies in, and as a boy he watched the mother and babies through a clear panel his grandad made for the purpose. “They were really good mothers,” he said with some emotion, and I had more than a twinge of guilt about the unfortunate, misunderstood, pregnant mother squirrel, about to burst, who keeps building nests that the humans keep destroying, and all she wants to do is just give birth to a bunch of baby squirrels. There was a certain unspoken female understanding going on here. I’d been there twice. She’s there now. Like Godzilla, Squirrelzilla was misunderstood. And Squirrelzilla was a she. So the idea of building a birthing chamber for her sounded appealing on many levels. We had a clear plastic box with a lid that we filled with grass, bird seed, and sticks, and we cut an opening in the side and placed it near the driveway and under a bush. The Mini was towed away and repaired for about $400, which we did not notify the insurance company about.

The Middle

A week after the first Squirrelzilla incident, the Beetle was ready for pickup from the VW dealer. The nesting box was unused. Still, after retrieving the Beetle and leaving $250 at the dealer for the copayment, at first I parked the Beetle across the street, believing naively that it would keep the car squirrel free.  I reasoned that by now the nest-building mother in need of a place to  have her babies must be done with the task, so the whole thing was probably over. We grew complacent. Sometimes I parked back in the driveway.

A few weeks went by. One night in May, we set out to attend a graduation. Our neighbor across the street, who has an older VW Beetle convertible, motioned us over. He told us that the engine of his Beetle, which was garaged, had also been used to build a squirrel nest. That squirrel was a bit more aesthetically oriented as she had taken pieces of cloth and small items from his workbench and tool box and placed them in the nest. Squirrelzilla was not done.

Not at all. Over the next 2 weeks I repeatedly found the beginning of nests in the Beetle many times. I was compulsively checking the engine several times a day. It got so crazy that even if I checked the engine, found nothing, ran an errand, returned home, and parked, an hour later, a quick check under the hood would reveal another nest was under way. How could the nest be created so quickly?? So I’d remove the nest. Soon the insurgency reached a new level. One day I came out of the house and saw a squirrel’s tail hanging out of the bottom of the Beetle’s front grill. It didn’t move around, just hung there. I couldn’t tell if it was alive or dead, so I got a broom and banged on the front grill. The tail moved and sounds erupted in response to each tap on the grill. Call and response. I opened the hood. Sure enough, there was a new nest in the same spot, and a squirrel ran out the bottom of the engine and away across the lawn. A few seconds later two small squirrels also ran out the bottom. But there was still a squirrel or two left inside when I again smacked the grille with the broom. Smack, gurgle; smack, gurgle. I propped the hood open and went in the house to have a tantrum.

David went outside and stood in front of the car. He returned inside to report that the mother squirrel was up in the tree “yelling” at him. As he has been known to believe and repeat entirely unsupportable statements about animal behavior and biology, I went to the door to verify his statement. It was no lie. The mother was not too far up the tree next to the driveway, looking right at us and making persistent quarrelsome noises that stopped whenever we retreated into the house. We spied on her through the front window. After a short time she ran down the tree and stood a few feet from the car, standing up on her back legs, completely still, and checking in our direction; every few seconds she moved closer to the car until she was again right next to it. Then she did something we couldn’t believe we were seeing: she reappeared on the top of the engine carrying a baby squirrel. With a tremendous show of strength, she kept struggling to grab the baby. She held it in her mouth by its scruff and repeatedly tossed the bulk of the baby’s body over her shoulder. Finally, she got it the way she wanted and ran across the street with the baby, pausing every few meters to rest, and finally disappearing at the far end of a neighbor’s lawn. A few minutes later, she returned, and repeated the whole process with another baby. We were speechless. I guess the farm boy was right; she really was a good mother.

Yet again I cleaned the new nest out of the car, left the hood propped open, and surveyed the engine for damage. Not seeing anything obvious, I gathered anew things I’d been told would ward off squirrels–a tarp under the engine on which anti-varmint pellets were spread; mothballs; two HavaHart traps, loaded with fruit and nuts. And whenever I wasn’t driving and it wasn’t raining, I left the hood up. I became obsessed. constantly checking under the hood and worrying about the next attack. There were times when I opened the hood to find the beginning of a new grass nest, but I didn’t see any squirrels and there was nothing in the Havahart traps.

David usually parked the Mini  across the street each evening when he came home from work. We checked it as often as we remembered and it seemed fine. Then one day I saw a squirrel run under it and not come out. I called to David that we should check the engine even though it had been parked for only an hour or so. He  opened the hood and there it was–a new, lush, grassy nest, and this time a big squirrel was sitting right on top of the engine block. As our hysteria level was elevated, the picture below is the best we could muster. Look on the right side of the engine.img_0224

We screamed and stepped backwards as the squirrel ran back into the engine. We banged on the car repeatedly (listen to the video) and it gurgled back at us. [After the tap-tap of the broom handle you can hear the response. The background noise you hear is the sound of cicadas.]

We spent some time attempting to scare the squirrel out of the Mini, to no effect. At the end of his rope by now, David started the engine to see if that would do the trick. Nothing. Finally, he drove a short distance up the street. The squirrel departed the vehicle. The hypocrite vegetarian returned triumphant.

The next day, the neighbor with the older VW Beetle came by to tell us about his own squirrel nightmare, this time in his State-issued Ford Explorer Hybrid. He got in and drove to work as usual and about 20 minutes into his morning commute his check-engine light went on. He was on a highway at the time, so he pulled over onto the shoulder and opened the hood. It was not just a nest that he found, and it was char-broiled.

Over the next few weeks I found the beginnings of new nests in the VW several more times. This problem was just not going away. The battle continued and I was losing. I began to think the squirrels were teaching each other. By now my obsession with squirrelzilla led me to do more “research” on squirrels, and I learned a lot of interesting facts. The females generally have two sets of babies per year, in the early spring and again in the summer. It turns out that there are two kinds of squirrels: tree squirrels and ground squirrels. Tree squirrels have smaller tails. So it turns out that tree squirrels are the ones plaguing us. I also found out that squirrels are not nocturnal, but are industrious, up-at-dawn types who like to build in the early hours of the day, when it is light. And they don’t like to build nests with open tops, so the advice to keep the hood up when possible is actually good.

In my online research I found what can only be described as a deep well of madness about squirrels and their nefarious activities. Not only are there people ready to kill and maim every squirrel on the planet, there are some in deep need of pharmaceutical and psychiatric help to cope with their anger, anxiety, and dread about squirrels and what they are doing and especially about what they might do in the future. I found scores of comments and pleas for answers on websites that sell animal-control products, with one in particular providing a huge amount of crowd-sourced knowledge and long, excruciating personal tales of woe about squirrels.

“We had the car back for 25 days, and it happened again. This time the damage wasn’t as bad and we had changed our deductible to $100 but it was still a $300+ job to fix it, and I lost my car from Thursday to Tuesday. Needless to say, we started trapping (Havahart traps) and transporting the squirrels 10 miles away and over a river. We just released #15 this afternoon and we do not live in a wooded area. We are in a nice little suburban area w/some trees. The only way back to our area is over the bridge or by swimming. I have nightmares of troops of squirrels marching back over the bridge to my car. What kills me is that there are 6 houses on our block, each house has 2 cars. With 12 cars to choose from, why did the squirrels choose mine, twice?!?”

One post, “How Do I Kill Squirrels That Are Eating My Car?” starts out saying the author just wants the squirrels to stop chewing on his wires.  Then it descends into Heart of Darkness-inspired imagery: “Ideally, this would be because they are dead, with their bleached skulls posted on stakes around the driveway as a warning to the next generation, but I’ll settle for “gone very far away, never to chew on vehicle wiring again.”(http://scienceblogs.com/principles/2010/02/28/how-do-i-kill-the-squirrels-wh/)

I also discovered that there are class action lawsuits concerning the earth-friendly soy coverings now put on wires of VWs, Hondas, and Fords, because small mammals apparently find this stuff very tasty. The level of desperation in the comments was funny at first, a little like the groundskeeper in Caddyshack, played by Bill Murray. But eventually the groundskeeper used explosives in an attempt to blow the critters out of the ground, where they were ruining the green.

The End–or So I Thought 

A month ago I was at home, working on my laptop in front of a window that looks out on the backyard. I heard some insistent scratching outside the window, so I stood up to look up at the gutters in an effort to figure out if there was a bird or something perhaps trying to get in, or out. With the onset of cold weather, we’ve had more than a few mice running around the house.  I couldn’t see anything going on above, so I opened the window and stuck my head out. I could now locate the mad scratching sound as coming out of a tall garbage can that was standing under the rain gutter to catch water.

I walked outside and slowly went over to the can, and peeked inside. A wet head with two beady eyes looked at me with what I can only say was desperation. It was a squirrel treading water. We looked at each other for a long moment. I fleetingly thought of Max Cady from Cape Fear, hair slicked back, talking in tongues. “COUNselor, save me.” Max, or Maxine, Squirrel may have eaten my engine–or perhaps its mother ate my engine.

What could I do? I tipped over the can, and as soon as it landed, a wave of water disgorged Max/Maxine, who went running off, stopping every few seconds to shake off water, all the while staring back at me, making shrill noises as he/she escaped along the wooden fence. I felt very charitable and magnanimous about sparing Max/Maxine. My self-congratulations were short lived.

Epilogue: Resurgence, February 2017

They’re back. No babies yet, but there are piles of acorns and leaves and even tufts of hair in my Beetle engine. I’m back to leaving the hood up, or putting it down a bit propped up, with a bag of mothballs inside. I have to take out the mothballs each time I drive, and then remember to put them in the engine each time I return. On top of waking up every day to the latest Trump assaults, I have to gather strength to keep up the  endless war against Squirrelzilla. But I must fight on, because like Godzilla, which has 29 sequels, Squirrelzilla has a new sequel each new season.




The Anne Frank Game in the Time of Trump

In Nathan Englander’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” a Jewish couple explains the Anne Frank game to their house guests. It’s not a really a game, the narrator says. “It’s dead serious. It’s ‘Who Will Hide Me?'” He explains how it works: first, they imagine that there’s an American Holocaust. Then they talk about which of their Gentile friends would hide them. “Would the friend do that for you? Risk it all?” he wonders. They discuss a couple that lives across the street. “The man would, but that wife of his… When her husband is at work one day, she’d turn us in,” the couple agrees. I know I’ve run through a similar mental exercise plenty of times even before I read Englander’s story some years back. I think most Jews play some version of the Anne Frank game, whether they realize it or not, especially if they grew up, as I did, in the 1960s and 70s almost entirely among Catholics and Protestants who had very little understanding that they might be interacting with people of other religions or beliefs. Sometimes their ignorance erupted into cruel remarks and stereotypes, often from the mouths of children, so that you knew they heard this from their parents. Sometimes their attempts at being magnanimous were laughable, such as when one neighbor introduced me to a new neighbor by saying, “And these are our wonderful Jewish neighbors.” Subtext: one of the “good” Jews.

With the election of Donald Trump, I’ve been thinking about the Anne Frank game again, only now the game’s players needs to be expanded from Jews to include Muslims, Latinos, African Americans, and LGBTQ people. There have been disturbing news reports about Trump’s appointees. First came the appointment of Steve Bannon, a noted anti-Semite and white nationalist–even though Newt Gingrich assured us that Bannon can’t be anti-Semitic because “he was a managing partner of Goldman Sachs… [and] a Hollywood movie producer.” There are rumors Trump disseminates personally or through his surrogates about “creating a registry” for Muslims. There was a televised interview on Fox with Carl Higby, a prominent Trump supporter, that included an actual discussion of how the internment of Japanese people during World War II could serve as a model for what the Trump administration might do to Muslims on the registry. For months before the election, we heard Trump talk about the anti-immigrant policies he plans to implement. Unsurprisingly, hate crimes are up all over the country as people who have long harbored hate and resentment now feel they have permission to put their feelings into action and words. Swastikas have appeared on buildings and have desecrated graves. Video footage showed hundreds at an “alt-right” conference celebrating Trump’s election, with prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer declaring, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” as the crowd gave enthusiastic Nazi salutes. The daughter of my late stepfather-in-law, who fled Nazi Germany in 1940, said that she was glad her father didn’t live to see this going on in his beloved adopted country, the United States of America.

Donald Trump won the election. Roughly half the voters think what Trump says and does is acceptable: that sexually assaulting women is acceptable, that Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals, that all Muslims are terrorists, and that disabled people can be mocked. Many people say that this nasty stuff was just pre-election rhetoric, that he will lead differently. That sounds remarkably similar to what one of my  landlords once said. He let his nephew live in one of his buildings, and he beat his girlfriend. A woman in that building confronted the landlord about his nephew, and she told us the landlord’s response was, “Don’t worry, it’s gonna be ok! They’re getting married!” Soon they got married and then moved upstairs from us, and one day the wife came to my door with sunglasses on to hide the black eyes he had given her and begged me for as many garbage bags as I could give her. She put all her possessions in the bags and never returned.

So I’m playing the Anne Frank game, wondering about my neighbors and the owners of the businesses I have long patronized. Did they vote for a man who espouses these beliefs? A man who retweeted racist and anti-Semitic images and connected them to Hillary Clinton, who fomented hatred of Muslims and Syrian refugees, and even made fun of a reporter with cerebral palsy? Who was silent when David Duke endorsed him?

This feeling of being a stranger in your own land is nothing new to African Americans and other minorities, of course. I recently heard an African American comedian on the radio recount how she called her mother the morning after the election to check on her because she thought her mother was going to be anxious about the results. Instead, she found her mother to be disappointed but calm. Her mother said, “Why are you surprised? You know where we live.” We live in the United States of America.

A few days after the election I was eating lunch with a friend at a diner on the grounds of a small  private airport near our studio in a fairly rural part of New Jersey. The three white men at a table next to me were talking loudly enough for me to hear them, taking turns extolling Trump’s cabinet appointments, and saying that now things were really, finally, going to change for the better. America was finally going to become great again for them. One of them had flown there in his private plane, so I doubt America was treating him all that badly. He complained that he was tired of all the whining about Trump’s cabinet appointments. “They’re making everything out to be about anti-Semitism!” he said dismissively, referring to the controversy about Bannon. He then said that we would have “law and order” in this country again, which has always been code for targeting African Americans.

We live in the United States of America, where enough people voted for Trump that he was able to win the Presidency. With their votes, those who voted for Trump confirmed that his repellant views are fine with them. And that is a truly terrible thing to process. How many times in the last few weeks have I heard, “Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a….[fill in the blank]; I voted for Trump for other reasons.” In this supposedly “post-racial” age, people seem to think they’re not racists or anti-Semites if they never use certain expressions or epithets in public, or if they are able to work in the same office as African Americans, Latinos, Jews, or Muslims. They say voting for Trump was just a whole separate issue, that it nothing to do with misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, or xenophobia.

I won’t forgive or forget what was said. I’m not going to go along to get along. The Republicans spent Obama’s 8 years in office resisting and obstructing every thing he proposed and said, so I’ve learn that the “high road” is not always the right road. In times like this, you have to resist in order to stand up for what’s right.

“The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference.” —Ian Kershaw

Please Click on This Deliverable, Nonbranded Content

Though I write for a living, the demotion of “writing” to “content” snuck up on me. The change was well under way by the time I first noticed it seeping into my assignments. First, the term “branded content” began appearing regularly in job descriptions for work that had nothing to do with pharmaceuticals or products being promoted, which I naively thought went hand-in-hand with  branding. Branding, in fact, began to be applied to everything, because a “brand” could even be something an individual, much less a company, could have or want to protect or develop, the way Oprah Winfrey or Kim Kardashian have.

My Unbranded Space

I  was clueless about the change because at the time I first noticed “branded content,” around 2010, I still inhabited what I now understand was an unbranded space, writing for unbranded channels and assets, writing medical information for healthcare professionals and patients–material that had no real promotional element. But when I started working on a new, quasi-educational project about a serious health condition that was being treated by a recently approved drug, I was introduced to the concept of branded and unbranded content.  I had to look up the terms “branded” and “assets” when the editor used them while describing the project. At the time, I imagined it would be unusual to see these terms with any frequency because I rarely did work for agencies and I didn’t write for promotional projects.

So it came as a shock when I began to realize that the only time I would be working on “unbranded” material was the now-rare occasion I was asked to write about studies or health conditions just for informational purposes. I’m very late to the realization that marketing has penetrated every form of writing and editing, even work that is not done within or for agencies, and that technology and marketing together have driven and forever altered media.

The word “content” replaced “writing.” There are academic papers and entire courses—somewhat ironically called Writing Studies— that describe what content is and explain how to properly create content so that content management systems can properly digest it and disgorge it for online consumption, how to optimize it for search engines to bring it to the attention of a maximum number of eyeballs. Writing studies professor Lisa Dush begins her 2015 writing studies essay, “When Writing Becomes Content” thus:

“To work with writing today means to work with writing as content. If, for example, you’ve composed in a content management system such as WordPress, you understand good writing practice to involve both crafting well-written posts and optimizing these posts as transportable, findable, content, by applying categories, tags, and SEO (search engine optimization) metadata.”


Recently this email/spam landed in my inbox:

Hello, I noticed that your On-Page SEO is missing a few factors, for one you do not use all three H tags in your post, also I notice that you are not using bold or italics properly in your SEO optimization. On-Page SEO means more now than ever since the new Google update: Panda. No longer are backlinks and simply pinging or sending out a RSS feed the key to getting Google PageRank or Alexa Rankings, You now NEED On-Page SEO. So what is good On-Page SEO?First your keyword must appear in the title.Then it must appear in the URL.You have to optimize your keyword and make sure that it has a nice keyword density of 3-5% in your article with relevant LSI (Latent Semantic Indexing). Then you should spread all H1,H2,H3 tags in your article.Your Keyword should appear in your first paragraph and in the last sentence of the page. You should have relevant usage of Bold and italics of your keyword. There should be one internal link to a page on your blog and you should have one image with an alt tag that has your keyword….Now what if i told you there was a simple WordPress plugin that does all the On-Page SEO, and automatically for you?

After marketing stomped all over writing, tech took its turn, and writing was turned into content created to suit “cross-platform repositories” (some of which were once called publications). As a result, writers and editors (now called content professionals) are creating content and “deliverables,” and managing that content in a “space” for “properties” that were once journals, magazines, and perhaps even books, for the “industry” of publishing—once the most unindustrial lines of work imaginable. A recent job advertisement I saw listed photography as an industry. The photography industry?

As the essayist Tim Kreider wrote in his 2013 New York Times article, “Slaves of the Internet, Unite,” delivering content suggests that words, writing, and art are mere filler to be delivered and placed between ads: “The first time I ever heard the word ‘content’ used in its current context, I understood that all my artist friends and I — henceforth, ‘content providers’ — were essentially extinct. This contemptuous coinage is predicated on the assumption that it’s the delivery system that matters, relegating what used to be called ‘art’ — writing, music, film, photography, illustration — to the status of filler, stuff to stick between banner ads.”

I Ain’t Gonna Work on Maggie’s (Content) Farm 

It’s gotten hard to distinguish so-called “sponsored content” from ordinary content, which is the logical extension of what happens when writing is grown on “content farms” and subjected to content audits and search engine optimization (SEO). When I use the word “content,” I don’t wonder about its authorship– who wrote, filmed, or photographed the content. The individual imprint of the content’s creator matters less than where the content is residing and “iterating,” and you want to increase the clicks, the views, the traffic, no matter what it is or how well it was written. HubSpot just put out a report called, “What Kind of Headlines Make People Not Click?” The report is supposed to answer the question of what has negative effects on the CTR (click-through rate).  Might it be bad writing, like the title of the report?

Content is valued more for its dissemination than its quality. The quality of content has become binary: it’s clickworthy or it’s not. A major design website intones, “Content on the Web is always temporary.” I get it, I get it. The content of the content is secondary to the medium that carries it.

This excerpt from a recent job listing sums it up:

“… seeking a creative, energetic, and data-driven editor to work closely with team members in the daily creation of content. … play a key role in scheduling daily content for your assigned channels, …and developing on-brand articles. …producing content and headlines that drive traffic…should be comfortable monitoring, reporting, and exceeding traffic goals, and identifying business growth opportunities …”

What is a data-driven editor? I envisioned an editor in a room full of content consumers reading screens as their CTR is measured and analyzed. It’s an endless loop: first there’s audience research to find out which topics website visitors are likely to be interested in; this prompts the website to hire content creators for their content farm, addressing those particular topics. The website sets up these “articles” with targeted ads that are also based on audience research. Everyone’s happy. The eyeballs are pleased because the site gives them what they think they want; sponsors love it too. Happy, happy, happy. An endless feedback loop of giving the customer what he or she wants. The effect of the giving-the-customer-what-she-wants mentality is that it limits readers to only those things they already know or believe, never to stumble over something surprising or mind expanding. The goal is to drive traffic.

…conceiving and assigning clicky, well-researched, and highly engaging articles, many of which are image-driven…Creating analytics reports on your channels to help us monitor, reach, and exceed traffic goals. Experience working at a content studio is a plus.

And here it comes……straight out of an episode of Silicon Valley: having a passion for  creating self-important content with the power to improve lives! You too can write yet another article on the Top 10 Reasons To Exercise.

…seeking an experienced, passionate freelance health editor who shares our brand mission to create health and medical content with the power to improve lives. The ideal candidate will have strong digital experience creating content for a consumer audience, including sponsored packages and a proven record of creating health condition and lifestyle content in various digital formats.

I wonder how hard it is to find an experienced (but, oh, God, not old!!) content professional who shares a passion about the brand mission to create “health condition and lifestyle content” that improve lives using sponsored packages of pretested and optimized content.

The Human Touch

One of the scarier implications of a content-creation mindset is that we are moving to a place where humans need not be the ones creating content. A 2011 article by Steven Lohr in The New York Times reported on a news brief that covered a college football game, which was produced within 60 seconds of the end of the game’s third quarter and was “written” by a computer using software produced by Narrative Science. According to Lohr, the Big Ten Network began using Narrative Science for updates of football and basketball games in 2010, and it was said to help drive a surge of referrals to the Web site from Google’s search algorithm, and was responsible for driving the network’s Web traffic for football games 40% higher than the year before. So the computer-generated content was getting the eyeballs better than, and for less money than, the human content creators. The same software is used by a trade publisher to provide monthly reports on more than 350 local housing markets for the construction trade. It had become too costly to hire people to write the articles for the trade website, but it’s less than $10 for each 500-word article created by Narrative Science software. No need to worry about those pesky humans and their need to be paid!

One of the effects of the transformation from writing to content is that writing is devalued. Since it’s devalued, it’s no longer worthy of being paid for.  Unique and unexpected topics are too risky to run when you’ve got to worry about the CTR. Anyone who expects to be paid a living wage for their writing can forget about it because they’re competing with entities who are happy to give things away for free, because the free content is just there as a delivery device to get the eyeballs to click on the revenue-generating stuff. And we don’t really need editors anymore, because content can be crowd-edited if needed on its next iteration and refreshment.

Back to Tim Kreider’s article: “Not long ago, I received, in a single week, three (3) invitations to write an original piece for publication or give a prepared speech in exchange for no ($0.00) money… People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing. They often start by telling you how much they admire your work, although not enough, evidently, to pay one cent for it.” Apparently, writers are supposed to be paid in the currency of “exposure,” all those eyeballs. “’Artist Dies of Exposure,’ goes the rueful joke,” Kreider notes.

My Internship

It feels like a permanent internship. Last week, a company that I have been working with for about five years—and which is growing by leaps and bounds–changed its policies on freelancers and said that if I wanted to continue working for them I would have to write the same-length articles for half of what I had been making, with the additional tasks of pitching the subject matter and getting the needed sources. When I tell editors I can’t accept a fee that is the same or less than what I was being paid in 1980, the year I graduated from college, I am not saying that for effect. It is true.

Writer or Content Creator?

Remember that email I got? It ended with: “Your Keyword should appear in your first paragraph and in the last sentence of the page.” Ok, I’m going to take that advice. My keyword must be content, so here goes.

No one would call John Steinbeck a great “content creator”–at least I don’t think that’s happened yet. In all likelihood, however, the days are numbered even for fiction’s currently unbranded space. In the not-too-distant future, kids may tell their parents, “When I grow up I  want to be a content creator.”

“You can’t judge a book by its content.”

[Cartoon, by Bruce Eric Kaplan, used with permission of The New Yorker]

Fight Night


“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”– Mike Tyson

My nephew, Laszlo, cited this quote in his official fight bio explaining why he undertook the challenge of participating in this year’s Wharton versus Law Fight Night charity fund-raising extravaganza at the Palestra in Philadelphia. Each year Wharton business school students train to fight University of Pennsylvania law students, or other Penn graduate students foolish enough to want to stand in the ring, face-to-face, mano a mano with a soon-to-be Wharton grad.

Laszlo’s fight bio continued: “Boxing teaches you how to move intuitively so you can keep going when everything falls apart. You can’t win a fight by being a good bullshitter or relying on your credentials. You have to work constantly, and once you’re in the ring, every round, every exchange, every moment is a new test. Most importantly, boxing teaches you to confront yourself, to look yourself in the eye and know that you—and not whoever you may find yourself in the ring with–are the only true opponent.”

The idea that boxers are fighting themselves was something I had never considered. Boxing had always seemed to be an epic fight between two men, a hypermasculine endeavor worthy of Norman Mailer’s attention. But in her book, “On Boxing,” Joyce Carol Oates agrees with the concept of self as opponent. “You and your opponent are so evenly matched it’s impossible not to see that your opponent is you.” She goes on, “The boxer meets an opponent who is a dream-distortion of himself in the sense that his weaknesses, his capacity to fail and to be seriously hurt, his intellectual miscalculations–all can be interpreted as strengths belonging to the Other.”

When we met Laszlo for dinner a few weeks before the bout, we were aware that he was going through some things in his personal life that had knocked him for a loop, but we didn’t know that he’d been training intensively for this boxing match as both a challenge and a way to immerse himself in something very much outside of his normal life. We were happy to accept the invitation, especially because Fight Night fell on the very day of his 30th birthday.

We didn’t fully realize how much work he’d put into training or what an extravaganza of the Philadelphia variety this was going to be. (All of you who have ever lived in and loved Philadelphia will know what I’m talking about. Philly has an earnestness that is a welcome contrast to New York’s cool. Halftime events at city sporting events feel almost Midwestern in their guilelessness.) I didn’t consider myself a boxing fan. I had covered my eyes during most of the fight scenes in Raging Bull. But an invitation to Fight Night from your nephew, who is boxing in it on his 30th birthday, is not something you can turn down.

The next time I called my brother, I asked him if he knew about Fight Night. He did, and was worried about Laszlo being hurt, especially the possibility of a concussion or eye injuries. I commiserated with him. My brother was happy to hear that at least we’d be at Fight Night, because he’d be at home that night in California worrying and waiting to hear if Laszlo was OK when it was over.

Detailed plans for Fight Night were emailed to us and all of Laszlo’s friends who were planning to attend the event, many from New York. The email laid out Laszlo’s plans to host a pre-party get-together at a pub near the Palestra; following the fight there was a big Wharton/Penn after-party, complete with a lot of alcohol and a rapper’s performance. After looking at the official Fight Night website, which had video of some of last year’s fights, we realized that this event was way more of a big deal than we expected. For one thing, the invitation said the event was black tie and David doesn’t have a tuxedo (“don’t worry, just look snazzy,” Laszlo said), and a big crowd attended. After we excused ourselves from the after-party extravaganza, Laszlo insisted that we go to the pre-party at the New Deck Tavern pub with his friends, from which he would be largely absent since he was preparing for the fight.

The pub on Sansom Street where the pre-party was held was a cute converted row house with flowers in window boxes and tables out front. Just as we got there, a taxi arrived and let out a beautiful young couple, he in a tux and she in a beautiful, floor-length slinky gown. David and I glanced at each other. “Must be the right place,” I said. Once inside the pub, a Maitre D asked us if we wanted a table, but we told him we were looking for Laszlo’s private party. He immediately directed us downstairs to the basement room. “Laszlo’s party is downstairs. Everyone looks really nice,” he said, and we hoped he wasn’t implying that we didn’t look so nice, because we were dressed in what was basically pretty boring middle-aged office-appropriate attire: David in a dark suit and blue button-down shirt and me in a sensible knee-length black knit dress with little shape, one-inch heels, and, in an attempt at a more dressy visage, fake diamond earrings.

Descending the narrow staircase into the packed, warm room with low ceilings, we saw a large group of young men and women, all very well dressed. They were at once bold and unsure, and strikingly beautiful. It is old fashioned to say “beautiful.” Everyone I overheard complimenting women that night said they looked “hot.” There are websites where you can find out if you’re “hot or not.” Hot outfits are different from ones that you look beautiful in, but I am forcing myself to put aside my outdated ideas about what one wears to events, to work, to weddings, or funerals, and am getting used to the fact that leaving anything to the imagination is an ideal from the past. Sparkles on breasts, super-deep cleavage, side boobs, major “back,” and dresses so short you can’t sit down are the rule. It’s the guys who are now the ones dressed with an eye toward elegance, smooth lines, eye-catching, colorful hand-tied silk bowties, and pastel-colored shirts.

The close quarters in the basement room instantly set off a hot flash, which ensured that I was no longer snazzy, now rather sweaty and flushed. David remained cool and collected. In short order the questions began: “Are you Laszlo’s mom?” “Are you related to Laszlo?” Must have been (question 1) that we were the only people in the room over the age of 30, and (question 2) the shared Jewish genetics that tipped them off. One young man asked if I was “The Aunt,” at which point I suspected that they had been warned and one of them might be assigned to look after us. Upon hearing I was the sister of Laszlo’s dad, one young man said, very slowly, “Oh, wow, I am a big fan of Mitchell Syrop,” my brother.

Outside the Palestra, the lines were long to get into Fight Night. Many young women tottered on sky-high heels and shivered as the suddenly cold wind blew on bare backs, shoulders, and legs. I threw fashion to the wind and wore the wool coat I’d brought along. (Being middle aged, cold is far more of an enemy than fashion blunders.) A guard scanned my ticket and searched my bag before waving me in. The hallway was filled with people moving in all directions. Just a few moments after stepping onto the bleachers, my suspicion that Laszlo had covertly assigned a particular couple to watch out for us seemed to be confirmed, as we found ourselves guided downstairs by the same elegant couple we’d seen get out of the taxi and with whom we’d chatted at the pub. Chris and Sarah had a pass to seats at ground level that had a great view of the ring. They kindly sat with us for nearly the entire event, even insisting on buying the old folks drinks. From our vantage point, we were in a perfect position to see the entire spectacle with the ring at its center on the floor of the Palestra. Crowds were gathered at linen-covered tables set up on the floor surrounding the ring. The din was already at a low roar.

The Penn campus, where David and I met in February 1977, is a very different place today. While we miss seeing places we frequented–like Troy’s dollar-for-breakfast combination greasy spoon diner and package goods store on 39th Street (home of the “Eggel”) or the Laundromat on 40th and Spruce, which featured pinball machines (Sinbad was my favorite) at which one could while away the time spent waiting for clothes to dry (or, alternatively, find a gun quickly abandoned in a washing machine)–all of which Penn has sanitized away through one land grab after another, it is gratifying to see other changes. The young people filling the Palestra for Fight Night, representing Wharton and all the various Penn graduate schools, would have seemed unimaginably diverse in the late 1970s and early 1980s when we lived there. Penn no longer has that fortress feeling it did back in 1976 when I arrived there.

While I was anxious about Laszlo’s match and whether he’d be hurt (specifically, I was focused on the nose and brain), I found myself oddly drawn to the matches leading up to his fight, which was the fifth one. It turns out that I don’t hate boxing, actually, at least not this relatively controlled boxing match. Fight Night bouts have only three rounds (professional fights can have up to 12), each 2 minutes long. Still, that can feel achingly slow. As in pro-boxing, for Fight Night there is no hitting below the belt, no hitting kidneys, and no hitting the back of the head or back of the neck. At Fight Night, no one wants an actual knockout. Winners are determined by judges’ decision. Throughout each fight an experienced referee was in the ring with the boxers, following every move, ensuring all goes well. The only matchup that made me uneasy was the sole women’s match, and it was only because the two fighters were so poorly matched in terms of body type and preparation that it was a rout, with the skinny physics PhD student looking very much worse for wear by the end.

After watching a number of matches, I suddenly understood how remarkable it was that boxers are hit repeatedly yet continue to come back for more, rather than running out of the ring in an act of desperate self-preservation. Oates writes, “The boxer must somehow learn…to inhibit his own instinct for survival; he must learn to exert his ‘will’ over his merely human and animal impulses, not only to flee pain but to flee the unknown.”

I didn’t know any fighters in any of the matches besides Laszlo, so I didn’t know the fighters’ stories or about any personal drama that might be motivating anyone involved to box and remain in the ring while being pounded. Oates says that each boxing match is a story–a unique and highly condensed drama without words. “Boxers are there to establish an absolute experience, a public accounting of the outermost limits of their beings,” Oates explains. “They will know, as few of us can know of ourselves, what physical and psychic power they possess–of how much, or how little, they are capable. To enter the ring near-naked and to risk one’s life is to make of one’s audience voyeurs of a kind: boxing is so intimate.”

Watching boxing isn’t like watching another one-on-one sport such as tennis. I’ve watched many tennis matches in which famous, phenomenal players lose in heartbreakingly close Grand-Slam level matches. Their public loss and ability to hold back their emotions long enough to make a speech and congratulate the winner can be painful and touching to watch, but witnessing the process of a loss in the boxing ring is much worse, with the opponent landing actual punches, and seeing blood pour out of places, feels very intimate indeed.

Finally it came time for Laszlo’s match against a Penn Dental School student who looked well matched in size and build with Laszlo. We positioned ourselves so that David could video the whole thing while I cheered with the fighter’s friends, “LAZ-LOW, LAZ-LOW, LAZ-LOW” and we stomped our feet in the stands. Each contender brings a “posse” of his friends from the back of the Palestra and they strut onto the stage as a self-made “promotional” video of their training plays above. The posse circles around the ring as the boxer takes off his jacket, straps on the head gear, and gets advice from the ring coaches. Laszlo’s posse of friends, dressed in black with ties, sunglasses, and leather (one of them in a faux-leather-policeman-in-shorts outfit), circle around the ring, drumming up the crowd spirit, before they exit.

It’s time for the fight. The Emcee announces the fighters in a very loud but smooth growl. The Ring babes in skimpy black outfits and high heels sashay around the ring, holding up the ROUND 1 signs. The bell goes off. The match begins. About 20 seconds in, David, suddenly a boxing expert, says, “Laszlo will win. He’s much better than the dentist.” During the first round, the fighters are nimble and quick, really showing their stuff. Laszlo has better footwork and lands more punches. I’m screaming and stomping in the bleachers. “LAZ-LOW! LAZ-LOW!” and thinking, “Watch the nose! Watch the nose! Watch your head! Watch your brains!” Then Round 1 is over, the boxers retire to their corners and have their noses wiped and water squirted into their mouths. The babes with the Round 2 signs do their circuit, and the action begins again, slower than Round 1 but still energetic. After Round 2, the boxers are back to the corners, now looking wild-eyed with exhaustion, breathing so hard it is scary. Laszlo sits with his arms stretched out sideways, crucifixion style, while being attended to. The babes with the Round 3 signs did their shimmy and strut, and it is the home stretch at last. Both boxers are visibly tired; it feels like a very long round for them, and their movements are more dance-like, clinching each other at times. Finally the buzzer sounds, and it’s over. As the two boxers stand with the referee between them, the announcer says Laszlo won the match. The referee raises Laszlo’s arm in victory, the boxers shake hands, and leave the ring.



We wait for Laszlo outside the dressing room door. There he is, soaked in sweat, with a bloody nose, but triumphant and glowing. He hugs me, says he is fine and will be out after he cleans up. I text my brother, sitting at home in Los Angeles, waiting for word:

–“He won. He’s fine. He’ll call you.”

–“Thank you,” comes the reply. “Your relieved brother.”


Author’s Note: Many thanks to Bob Moncrief for his advice and for sending me to the library to read Joyce Carol Oates.