Squirrelzilla: Resurgence

images

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.

img_2984

img_7345

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.

vw-from-dealer-2

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.


mini2

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, 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 the change 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.”

Unclickable

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 breech 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.”

 

Fight Night


IMG_0145

“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.

 

IMG_4447

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.”

IMG_4453

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

Cat, Lost and Found


UntitledRecently, my son’s cat went missing. Dmitri is my favorite of Joe’s cats, a skinny, friendly little guy who I bonded with during my occasional cat-feeding duties. Dmitri is the cat that will nuzzle your face and pay attention to you beyond his desire to be fed. So when Joe called one Sunday night in October to say that Dmitri had gotten loose and not returned home, I promised to help in any way I could.

Joe emailed me a Lost Cat poster with a picture of Dmitri. I went to Staples and printed out about 50 copies. We met  at Joe’s house and walked methodically around his neighborhood with a staple gun, and put the poster on every telephone pole for several blocks in all directions. A few neighbors who saw us at work with the staple gun commiserated and said they’d keep their eyes open and call if Dmitri turned up in their yard. Several people pointed out where homeowners were known to feed stray cats, and suggested we look around their yards.

At one point a car pulled up and two young women said they were certain that Dmitri had been meowing loudly on their back porch the night before, but when they went outside, he ran away. The good news was that they lived only two streets away from Joe’s house. Well, we reasoned, Dmitri was sweet, but he wasn’t the brightest bulb. He could get lost that close to home. But at least there was hope he was still nearby.

Joe had to go to work so I continued stapling posters until all of them were up. As I was finishing stapling the remaining posters, I spoke with a nurse coming home from a night shift, a man raking leaves, a young woman getting high in her car, and one of the homeowners who fed stray cats. All were concerned and promised to keep their eyes open for Dmitri. It was hard to believe that people who don’t know Joe, or his lost cat, ungrudgingly spent 10 minutes outside in the cold talking to us about this small personal tragedy, rather than running inside to get warm.

For two more nights Dmitri was out on the street somewhere. The temperatures plunged into the 30s and it was windy and damp. I had trouble sleeping, thinking about Dmitri being cold and wet, hungry, and scared, or worse. Joe said, “I hope if something terrible happens, it happens quickly and he doesn’t suffer.”

In the late afternoon on the sixth day after Dmitri went missing, a man called Joe to say he thought Dmitri was in his yard hiding under a tarp. A short time later, Joe got Dmitri –lost only two blocks away from home. He was skinnier, dirtier, and hungry, but seemed OK.

Screen Shot 2015-12-25 at 12.13.53 AM

The next day I went back to Joe’s neighborhood and took down all the lost cat posters so people would stop worrying about Dmitri. A number of people who saw me pulling them down asked if I’d found the cat, and seemed genuinely happy to hear we had.

The whole series of events around Dmitri getting lost, and then found, were a rare occurrence in my life these days–an arc of events that from inception of the problem to its resolution took less than a week to play out. Problem identified, steps taken to address the problem, problem resolved. I can’t think of any other problem or challenge facing me over the last 5 or 6 years that has had such a satisfyingly brief resolution, and it isn’t because the problem of a lost cat may not be on the scale of other things I worry about. For weeks after the Lost Cat arc was completed, I kept thinking about it. I realized just how much I hungered for an arc that resolved so cleanly and happily in any other part of my life. An arc in which my efforts could actually have a positive effect. A problem that posters, staple guns, and telephones could solve.

IMG_3594

 

 

IMG_2200

Why Does It Take a Lifetime?

48BSigns

For the last year the words on the sign in this picture have been like constant background music. The expression sums up many feelings I have as a parent, watching my children make their way.  I try to be more detached as they’ve become young adults, but in reality, I am anything but. I’m so invested in my children that I can barely stand “watching” them. A few weeks ago I read an article in New Scientist that began, “Mothers always have their children in the back of their minds – now it seems that this is quite literally true.” It seems that scientists found fetal DNA in mothers’ brains many decades after their sons’ births. They hypothesized that because fetal cells escape the placenta, they entered the mother’s brains and remained there literally for decades–discovered when the women were autopsied. Is this why I never stop worrying, feeling their pain? Judith Shulevitz recently wrote that “sociologists sometimes call the management of familial duties ‘worry work,’ and the person who does it the “designated worrier,” because you need large reserves of emotional energy to stay on top of it all. Maybe I am not as dispassionate as I need to be. Maybe one of my friends was right when he more than hinted that I was complicit, a drama junkie.

But I keep thinking, at least with the younger generation, they’re on a path with many years ahead to figure things out.  And, as conventional wisdom has it, as you get older you learn from the bumps in the road, and sometimes they help you in ways you don’t expect. “It takes a lifetime” can be a comforting thought as long as you think there’s hope for an upward trajectory.

But after a recent call from my father, I told my brother that I’d been reconsidering. “You know that question, ‘Why does it take a lifetime?’ I’ve been thinking. A lifetime, it turns out, is not actually enough time to figure things out.” Great age does not, “ipso facto,” as my father used to like to say, get packaged with deep understanding despite a lifetime’s worth of experience. The 84-year-old Warren Buffett may still be on top of his game, and  The New York Times periodically runs articles featuring amazingly active, marathon-running elderly folks who are still, in their late 80s and into their 90s, happily hiking, painting, writing, and playing drums. Articles about these amazing elderly people usually search for clues to how the “old masters,” as one article called them, got to be so old but still so good–the subtle implication being that we too can be old masters, if we just do things right. And we will be among the blessed old but good, right? Eat right, exercise, stay fit, do crossword puzzles, and think positively!

Well, my mother was pretty much the picture of the active, very healthy, happy, serene, old lady, who loved her life and was proud of her life’s work as an elementary school teacher. Four years ago, my mother was still swimming far enough out in the lake that my father felt he had to follow her in a rowboat. Only she got Alzheimer’s disease two years ago and is pretty much unlearning everything she knew. This quite simply has unraveled my dad, a lifelong planner and anxious person, who is unprepared and unable to fathom the situation he now finds himself in. “I feel like I’m riding in a speeding car without a steering wheel,” he told me. Our discussions are painful and often a reversal of roles. I’d like to believe I’m going to be one of those old masters too, but in reality we are all driving without a steering wheel, whether we admit it or not. My generation is particularly lousy at imagining, much less admitting, that there are things not in our control, and I lose patience when yet another study or well-meaning person tells me what things I should be doing to increase the chance that I’ll have a serene and healthy old age.

The elderly people in my life aren’t hiking or writing books or showing up for work every day in a suit. For a variety of reasons, both externally and internally driven, they have little agency and an overwhelming, crippling amount of fear. Fear rules their entire world, and when fear rules, it crowds everything else out because nothing else has room to breathe. This is why FOX News and the Weather channel have so successfully owned the older generation, prompting a friend to ask, “Can we just have only one channel allowed for everyone over age 80–the Happy Channel? Only good news and good weather reports?”

I recently came upon the following passage from a speech by Andrew Solomon, and I am keeping his words in mind as I navigate the two sides of the generational ridge I find myself standing on top of.

“While all old people have been young, no young people have been old, and this troubling fact engenders the frustration of all parents and elders, which is that while you can describe your experience you cannot confer it. It’s tempting, nonetheless, to pose as an expert—and in another way it’s tempting to say, ‘I know nothing that you don’t already know.’ Neither of those postures is right. Every stage of life longs for others. When one is young and eager, one aspires to maturity, and everyone older would like nothing better than to be young. We have equal things to teach each other.”

This ridge is a hard place to inhabit. No longer young, not yet old; young enough to still have a hard time imagining I’ll ever be like my parents, but old enough to know it may be no better when I get there. It may not be possible in a lifetime to come even close to learning what you need to, but right now I just have to get better at walking this tightrope.

In Memory of Mr. Spock (and Leonard Nimoy)

 

Live long and prosper.
Live long and prosper.

In the days before cable TV, the Internet–VHS and DVDs, for that matter–I couldn’t miss the weekly hour on network TV with Mr. Spock and the crew of the starship Enterprise for fear that once gone, the loss would be irretrievable. My parents restricted our TV time to 30 minutes on weeknights, so my brother and I pooled our time and watched the 1-hour Star Trek together.

It’s hard to explain to people what the original Star Trek and the character of Mr. Spock meant to me when I was a kid. I didn’t have onerous challenges to surmount –I was a middle-class white kid with well-educated parents and much love. No, what made me feel like an outsider was pretty much being Jewish in Yonkers, NY, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with parents who gave me piano and violin lessons and as many books as I wanted to read. It was a time when (and few people believe me when I say this) each Wednesday afternoon, the entire public elementary school I attended was released from school to attend “religious instruction” at a nearby church. I should amend that statement to, “the entire public school except for 3 kids (2 Jewish girls and one Chinese-American girl), who remained behind to clap erasers together, clean the desks, and wash the chalkboards with the teachers. The next day when the kids came back to school, they’d sometimes talk about what they learned in “Religion” and it was certainly a source of wonder for me to ponder, or decode, the puzzling imagery their words produced: crosses, ascension to Heaven. The downside to what they learned “in Religion” was the occasional remark about Jews killing Jesus Christ or the called-out chorus of “Jew! Jew!” during cafeteria food fights. This was likely the beginning of a life-long predisposition toward alienation from larger groups I might have otherwise been part of.

So Mr. Spock and the multicultural/multigender crew of the USS Enterprise was a revelation to me. I’m not the first one to say that, obviously. The actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhuru, tells of being contacted by Martin Luther King, who begged her not to leave the show because her prominent presence on the crew (albeit as a glorified telephone operator) meant so much to the African American community, who rarely saw an African American actor who was not playing a maid or slave. No one said it, but Mr. Spock was obviously a Jew as far as I was concerned. The big ears were instead of a big nose (yes, a stereotype but…), his heart being in the wrong place, his blood being a different chemistry, these were ways to codify Spock in fact being “OTHER”: Jewish, bookish and intellectual (“logical”) in the less-than-brainy environment I found myself growing up in.

Years later Mr. Spock’s Judaism was confirmed for me when I read that Leonard Nimoy had himself added the now-famous V-shaped hand signal he made when saying, “Live long and prosper!” Apparently, when he was a small boy he had seen the rabbi gesticulate this way with both hands toward turned backs of the assembled synagogue congregation while he blessed the Torahs in the arc behind him. And what about Mr. Spock’s parents–one Vulcan, the other an Earthling–the two cultures at war within him, making it hard for him to feel fully identified with either half (which is how I felt). If one needed any further evidence that Spock was a Jew, it was easily found in the episode called “Amok Time,” when Spock returns to his home planet for a mating ritual that is presided over by the matriarch T’Pau, who is perhaps best described as the world’s biggest-ever Jewish Bubbe (grandma).

Nowadays kids like me would “find community” on the Internet, would discover like-minded people in far flung places who could be united online because they have common interests, concerns, beliefs, and shared weirdness. We didn’t have that in 1968 or 1970. We had to find community in some really bizarre ways. My way was Mr. Spock.

When Leonard Nimoy died today, my son sent me a tweet from a woman my age who said she carried Spock’s picture around in her notebook when she was a kid. “Helped me a lot as I was a kid not like the others,” she tweeted. “I remember knocking on a neighbor’s door one evening when our TV wasn’t working. It was SO important to me.”

Farewell, Mr. Spock, and Leonard Nimoy. You did live long, prosper, and make a lot of people feel less weird and alone.