Such a Trial

          I was nervous. Extremely nervous. I had been practicing law for just two months as a public defender, and I was about to undertake my first jury trial. Although my job with the New York City Legal Aid Society had given me a month of training before I was let loose in court, I had never seen an actual jury trial.

          The two defendants had been formally charged with “jostling,” a New York crime that punished people for unnecessarily putting their hands near or in others’ pockets or purses, a crime aimed at pickpockets. The complaint, however, hardly indicated a light-fingered pair. No. They were charged with beating a person senseless on the Bowery (in those days it was not a hipster haven but a skid row) and taking money out of his pockets.

          I knew little about the case other than the single paragraph setting out the charges. New York law did not even require that I be told who the prosecution witnesses would be, much less what they would say. I could do only what I had been taught to do.

          In the courtroom before the judge entered, I tentatively called out the victim’s name listed in the complaint in hopes that he would talk to me. No response. I said it louder. Still no response. I then called out, “Officer Murphy,” who had made the arrest. A man with a gold badge dangling from a breast pocket motioned me outside.

          His first words to me were angry. “I worked hard to become a detective. I am Detective Murphy, not Officer.” He almost spat that last word. He went on to tell me that he was working a robbery detail when he saw my clients roll a drunk. When I asked where the victim was, the detective confessed that although he had repeatedly been to the dollar-a-night hotel the victim had given as an address, the Bowery resident could not be found.

          I descended into the bowels of the courthouse to talk to my clients, who were in a holding cell. The two, both much older than the average arrested person, had not made bail. Their “rap sheets” revealed lengthy criminal records, and although I was to see thousands of such criminal records over the years, one of these client’s sheets contained an entry I never saw again. Twenty years earlier, he had been arrested for vagrancy in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Although in those days, the records seldom reported the disposition of an arrest, this one did. It simply said, “Put on the bus to Chicago.”

          One of the defendants moved to the front of the cell and spoke to me through the bars, nervously insisting that he knew nothing about the charges but that he wanted a plea bargain. The assistant district attorney, however, had said that any deal would require both defendants to plead guilty. The other client sat placidly in the far corner of the cell reading the Bible. From there he said firmly, “I am not pleading guilty. If this is a crime, where is the victim?” When I explained that the charges were not going to be dismissed because of the victim’s absence, he just repeated, “If this is a crime, where is the victim? Let’s go to trial.” So, we went to trial.

          I may have thought that a certain majesty or dignity surrounded a jury trial, but the TV and movie courtrooms did not look like this one. Manhattan misdemeanor jury trials were in small, airless, dingy rooms with humming, dim lights. The smell could never have been captured on television. Part of it came from generations of unwashed bodes; another part from infrequently applied disinfectant floor cleaners. There were other components, too, but even after years of entering such rooms, I dare not speculate on them all.

          The jury selection for that trial is a blur, as are the prosecutor’s and my opening statements. The detective testified about how he saw the defendants beat the other man and take his money. In my cross-examination, I suggested that the cop’s vantage point did not allow him to see all that he claimed, but mostly I harped on the fact that the supposed victim showed no interest in the case and could not be found. The detective was the only witness.

          My summation must have pleased one of my clients because most of it was variations of “If this was a crime, where is the victim?” The prosecutor responded that justice had seldom seen a more open-and-shut case. The judge then told the jurors the law they were to apply in reaching a verdict, and the jury began to deliberate. Two hours at most had elapsed from the trial’s inception.

          Perhaps forty-five minutes later, the jury had a verdict. The clerk told my clients to stand and face them. My heart pounded, and I asked myself, “Am I to stand, too?” No one had told me. As I worried whether I was embarrassing myself, the foreman announced the first verdict. I did not hear it. But when the jury was asked about the second defendant, I clearly heard, “Not guilty.”

          Relief followed. A few days later, the arresting detective saw me in a courthouse corridor. He extended his hand. “Counselor,” he said, “you beat me fair and square.” Is that what a jury trial was about? Was it a contest between the cop and me, with the jury as arbiter?

          The jury system was starting to seem more complicated and mysterious than I had realized. On the one hand, I thought it possible that my clients had done something like what the cop had recounted, even though I doubted he had witnessed all he claimed. On the other hand, the state could not prove robbery, and I thought that the prosecution was misusing the jostling law against the defendants. According to the words of the statute, they were guilty, but the acquittal did not seem unjust. Perhaps it was even right.

(Continued November 20)

He Never Saw His Mother Again (concluded)

Bambi the deer may seem amusing, heartwarming, and brave, but Bambi: A Life in the Woods was seen as subversive by the Nazis. Bambi, along with other work by Felix Salten, who was Jewish, was banned by Hitler in 1936. Some saw the novel as an anti-fascist allegory and that the hunted deer were symbols of Jews in Germany. (More than deer are pursued as prey, however. For example, pheasants are killed, a hare is cruelly ensnared, and a darling of ducklings is orphaned.) The most famous hunting scene, where Bambi and his mother are separated during the carnage, still makes for tense, powerful reading providing, of course, great sympathy for the hunted. That chapter tersely concludes, “Bambi never saw his mother again.”

 If Salten intended an anti-fascist book, he was remarkably prescient since the novel was first serialized before the rise of Hitler, but, of course, in the mid-1930s, it could easily have been read that way. If the deer were stand-ins for Jews, the book could also have been seen as an anti-assimilationist warning.

This anti-assimilationist theme centers around Gobo, Bambi’s cousin, who I don’t remember in the movie. Gobo is not strong in the intelligence department. The fawn Gobo gets wounded by hunters and cannot make it to safety, and readers assume he dies. Then, after he is forgotten, he reappears. Gobo was taken in by a hunter and nursed back to health. The book is not clear why Gobo is now back in the forest, but Gobo sings the praise of the hunter (all the hunters are labeled He or Him.)

The other deer, not surprisingly, label the hunter as evil, but Gobo maintains He is not wicked. Gobo tells how he was given hay and warm shelter by Him. Bambi and other deer have learned to sleep during the day because it is safer to forage at night and are careful about entering a clearing where danger from Him lurks. Gobo, however, has become trusting and does not follow these precautions. “I got to know that He wouldn’t hurt me. Why should I have been afraid? If He loves anybody or if anybody serves Him, He’s good to him. Wonderfully good! Nobody in the world can be as kind as He can.”

The deer notice, however, braided horsehair around Gobo’s neck. Gobo uneasily stammers, “That? Why, that’s part of the halter I wore. It’s His halter and it’s the greatest honor to wear His halter, it’s. . .” Silence descends with the old stag looking “at Gobo for a long time, piercingly and sadly. ‘You poor thing!’ he said softly at last, and turned and was gone.”

After He slaughters Gobo wandering in a clearing, Bambi recounts how Gobo said He was so good and powerful and that “He was good to Gobo.” In response to the old stag’s question, Bambi says that he is confused and not sure if he believes what Gobo said. “The old stag said slowly, ‘We must learn to live and be cautious.’” And when the old stag leads him to a dead hunter, Bambi realizes He is not all powerful and dies like all do. Bambi eventually concludes, “There is Another who is over us all, over us and over Him.”

If the book is an allegory, it is certainly not one for the domestic, monogamous bliss portrayed in the movie. Bambi does fall in love with the beautiful Faline (apparently, we are to ignore the incestuous fact that Faline and Bambi are first cousins), but in the book it is not everlasting love that ends in the birth of heirs as in the movie. Bambi withdraws from Faline with the interesting statement: “But she no longer satisfied him completely.” Hmmm.

Its Jewish source led to the Nazi ban of Bambi: A Life in the Woods. I know of no attempt to ban the book in the United States, but I would not be surprised if there had been one since the American version had a communist source. Surprisingly, Bambi was translated into English by Whittaker Chambers, who is linked in history with Alger Hiss and the pumpkin papers, at a time when Chambers was a member of a communist party and was writing and editing for communist publications. Even so, I am not aware that the Red Scare that attacked so many cultural icons in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s ever denounced the book. If the fearmongers had wanted to, however, they could have attempted to say that the book was communist propaganda, for it seems to speak against private property and for a paradisaical communalism. Near the beginning of the book, for example, the mother shows baby Bambi a woodland path, and he asks to whom the trail belongs. She replies, “To us.” She corrects Bambi’s misimpression and explains that she does not mean Bambi and her, but “to us deer.” It is held communally. And when Bambi worries that he will have to fight for food as the jays do, his mother reassures that such fighting will be unnecessary “because there is enough for all of us.”

Ultimately, however, the book praises individualism, not communitarianism. Near the end of the book, Bambi remembers his first encounter with his elder’s wisdom. “When he was still a child the old stag had taught him that you must live alone. Then and afterward the old stag had revealed much wisdom and many secrets to him. But of all his teachings this had been the most important: you must live alone. If you wanted to preserve yourself, if you understood existence, if you wanted to attain wisdom, you had to live alone.” At the book’s conclusion, Bambi tries to pass this precept to another fawn.

Perhaps Salten is suggesting that as attractive as communalism might be (with its promise of peace and plenty), it’s a fantasy. The real world is a dog-eat-dog world (dogs are villains in this book) battle, and in order to survive, you’d better watch your back, believe in no one but yourself, depend on no one but yourself. Not exactly Disney’s take.

He Never Saw His Mother Again

I realized yet again that my education is deficient. I am not well versed in classic children’s literature. I was surprised when, many years after seeing the movie, I learned that Walt Disney had not created the character Pinocchio for the 1940 eponymous film, but instead that the marionette had been the inspiration of the Italian Carlo Collodi (the pen name of Carlo Lorenzini) who wrote The Adventures of Pinocchio in the 1880s. I did know that the movie The Wizard of Oz was based on a book by L. Frank Baum, but I was surprised to learn decades after first seeing the movie that there was not just one Oz book, but a series of more than a dozen.

Perhaps having realized about such gaps in my learning I should not have been surprised to find out about another similar one. The other day I was reading Laura by Vera Caspary, first serialized in Collier’s in 1942 and published in book form the next year. (I was familiar with Laura from the outstanding film made of it in 1944 directed by Otto Preminger and starring Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, and Clifton Webb, but I was surprised to learn that before the movie was made, the book had been adapted into a play that ran in London and New York.) Early in the book, the wonderfully named Waldo Lydecker describes first meeting Laura Hunt at his apartment door and says she seemed as though “Bambi—or Bambi’s doe—had escaped from the forest and galloped up the eighteen flights to this apartment.” I did not think a note was needed for this reference (I read Laura in a collection entitled Women Crime Writers: Suspense Novels of the 1940s and the editor, Sarah Weinman, explains some allusions in the books that might escape the modern reader), but there was one that told me that Bambi was the “deer fawn who is the protagonist of Felix Salten’s novel, published in 1928. Walt Disney’s animated feature was released in August 1942.” And I found myself surprised that the movie Bambi was based on a novel. I had not known that.

That novel was Bambi: A Life in the Woods, or that was its title in the English version first published in the United States in 1928. The author was the Austrian Felix Salten, and the book was published in Austria as Bambi: Eine Lebensgeschicthe aus Dem Walde in 1923 after having been serialized in a Viennese magazine. Salten was after an adult audience, and in the U.S., Bambi was a Book-of-the-Month selection selling more than a half-million copies by the time Disney made the movie. It was praised in a forward by John Galsworthy, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years later. Galsworthy said it “is a delicious book . . . not only for children but for those who are no longer so fortunate. . . . Felix Salten is a poet. He feels nature deeply. . . . Clear and illuminating, and in places very moving, it is a little masterpiece.”

(Not surprisingly, while the movie follows the basic plot of the book, Disney wanted the film to be lighter than the often dark original, and Thumper the Rabbit and Flower the Skunk were added to the animation. Thus, Thumper’s most famous, ungrammatical, oft repeated, and widely parodied line—“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all”—is not in the book. I don’t know who, if any, of the seven listed for the movie’s story direction, story adaptation, and story development should get credit for Thumper’s frequently-ignored wisdom. On the other hand, the movie Laura is quite faithful in almost every detail to the novel Laura.)

Not only was I surprised that there was a Bambi novel before there was a Bambi movie, I was surprised by a few things about the book’s author. Bambi: A Life in the Woods, sometimes seen as one of the earliest environmental novels, has been widely regarded, for good reasons, as a strong statement against hunting. Paradoxically, Felix Salten was an avid hunter. Second, even though Salten wrote the book as adult fiction, it almost immediately became beloved by children. It seems ironic then that today it is generally accepted that he was also the author of the book published in 1906 under a pseudonym, titled in English Josephine Mutzenbacher or The Story of a Viennese Whore, as Told by Herself. This book has been in print in both English and German since its first publication and has sold over three million copies. The “memoir” can be considered part of the canon of erotic literature and graphically portrays, largely without a plot, many, many sexual acts of all sorts, although I am glad to report no deer participate in the flagitious activities. (I asked my young Austrian friend whether she knew that Bambi was Austrian. She was not familiar with the book. When I said that author Salten was also thought to be the author of an erotic book “Josephine Something-or-Other,” she immediately said “Josephine Mutzenbacher.” And again, I thought that I should find more reasons to hang out with her.)

(Concluded November 15.)

Lonely Veterans’ Day

On the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, although we may not get our history always right, we do seem to give at least a nod to the events that gave rise to the holiday. Presidents Day, however, does present some confusion. Are we honoring all Presidents, and why would we honor Buchanan? Or is it only Washington? Or is it Washington and Lincoln? At least by the car and mattress ads “celebrating” Presidents Day, it seems to be both George and Abe, whose images are flashed about. In fact, who is being officially honored depends on where you are. The federal holiday is officially George Washington’s Birthday. It was once celebrated on February 22 although Washington was born on February 11, 1731, but that was under the Julian calendar that the British then used, which was eleven days behind the Gregorian calendar. In 1752, the British Empire adopted the Gregorian calendar, and February 11 magically became February 22, and 1752 apparently had eleven fewer days than other years. In 1879, Congress proclaimed Washington’s Birthday as a federal holiday in Washington, D.C., and extended it to all federal offices six years later with February 22 as the commemoration date.

I had a distinctly personal interest in this holiday. I knew that my mother and Washington had birthdays on February 22 and February 24, but I had trouble remembering which was which. When that month came, I would look at a calendar to find the legend “Washington’s Birthday,” and only then would I be sure on which day to give the mother a card—we weren’t big on gifts. I had problems starting in 1971 when Congress passed the Uniform Federal Holidays Act, which stated that Washington’s Birthday would be celebrated on the third Monday of February. The holiday now falls anywhere from February 15 through February 21, but never on February 22. Go figure. I am not sure how the mother would have reacted to all of this.

The federal holiday honors only George Washington. No federal holiday honors the other presidents, and certainly not Lincoln’s Birthday, which is February 12. Do you really think that the South was going to allow a national celebration of Abraham Lincoln? The states, however, do not have a uniform commemoration. Some have a generic President’s Day; some have a Washington’s Birthday; some have a combined Washington/Lincoln Day; and some have separate holidays for Presidents Day/Washington’s Birthday and for Lincoln’s Birthday. (And thus the holiday can be Presidents Day, President’s Day, or Presidents’ Day in different part of the country.) I have been grateful that New York falls into the category with two commemorations. When I worked as a public defender, it meant that the courts were closed on both Presidents Day and Lincoln’s Birthday, giving me two holidays in a short period. And I am still thankful that New York City’s alternate-side-of-the-street-parking restrictions are suspended on both days.

Whoever is being officially honored, we do seem to know and give at least a little nod on Presidents Day to the Father of our Country and perhaps also to the president who saved the Union.

          Do most of us even retain even that much of the real meaning of Memorial Day? The federal holiday, once called Decoration Day and celebrated on May 30 but now on the last Monday of May, is for remembering and honoring those who died while in the military. There may be a few official speeches somewhere along those lines and there are some of our older generations who maintain a tradition of visiting the graves of loved ones, but this somber holiday now seems primarily celebrated as the unofficial beginning of summer and, for smaller fry, the end or near-end of the school year. It is not a time for the solemn reflection about the sacrifices of others but about the joys of the beach and the freedom from homework.

The name of the federal holiday Veterans’ Day does force us at least to momentarily think about the purpose of the day—to honor those who served in the military (Memorial Day commemorates those who died in the military), but originally its purpose was different. It was Armistice Day, and the armistice was the one that ended World War I that occurred at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. The following year, President Wilson issued a message in celebration of Armistice Day, and in 1938 it became a federal holiday: “a day,” according to Congress, “to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be celebrated and known as ‘Armistice Day.’ ” After World War II, a movement began to expand the commemoration to include all veterans, and in 1954, November 11 became Veterans’ Day.

Its scope has been expanded, but Veterans’ Day does not generate the hoopla of the Fourth of July, the family rituals of Thanksgiving, or the excitement of the impending summer of Memorial Day. As a kid, it seemed to be a minor holiday primarily because our schools did not close. Instead, at a few minutes before eleven on the eleventh day of the eleventh month our studies were interrupted. We all stood, and over the school’s public address system, a student, sometimes recognizably, played taps on what was usually a trumpet. We then sat down and picked up again with our social studies class.

Even as an adult, Veterans’ Day seldom has had the impact on me that it should. That was driven home one year. I had gone to the New York Public Library to continue some research in newspapers from the Revolutionary War era. The library’s hours varied, but this project had been going on for months, and I knew all the times that the library was open. I walked up the many steps between Patience and Fortitude, the stone lions guarding the entrance, but the door was locked. Mystified, I walked over to the sign with the library’s times. It should have been open. I tried the door again. It was still locked, and I noticed that there was not the usual bustle of patrons and tourists in and out of the building. Only then I thought about. It was November 11. It was a holiday, and the library was closed.

I had planned to spend the day at the microfilm machines, but now I did not know what to do with myself. Then I heard the faint sound of a band, and I finally noticed that there was no traffic on Fifth Avenue. I realized that the Veterans’ Day parade was going to pass in front of the New York Public Library. I had seen many other parades in New York, including ones for St. Patrick’s Day, Puerto Rico Day, Halloween, and Thanksgiving, but I had never seen one for Veterans’ Day in New York City. I waited and watched. It made me a bit sad. Some flags, a couple of bands, and a few people, mostly men, in old uniforms were marching or being driven in open cars. The really depressing part was that unlike the crowds and exuberance and the shouts and the vendors of the other parades, almost no one was watching the procession. Everything seemed lonely and forgotten.

First Sentences

“By August 1, all of New York was talking about the disaster.” Edward P. Kohn, Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt.

“The morning burned so August-hot, the marsh’s moist breath hung the oaks and pines with fog.” Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing.

 “Under a sliver of moon, on an island off the coast of China, a twenty-six-year-old army captain slipped away from his post and headed for the water’s edge.” Evan Osnos, The Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China.

“Twenty miles from here, twenty miles north, the funeral mass was starting.” Rebecca Makkai, The Great Believers.

“He would cross and re-cross the East River thousands of times, including the day before his last on earth.” Stacy Horn, Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad & Criminal in 19th-Century New York.

“The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.” Anna Burns, Milkman.

“Sally Horner walked into the Woolworth’s on Broadway and Federal in Camden, New Jersey, to steal a five-cent notebook.” Sarah Weinman, The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World.

“I might have been ten, eleven years old—I cannot say for certain—when my first master died.” Esi Edugyan, Washington Black.

“Jean McConville was thirty-eight when she disappeared, and she had spent nearly half her life either pregnant or recovering from childbirth.” Patrick Radden Keefe, Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland.

“When a high-powered rifle hits living flesh it makes a distinctive—pow-WHOP sound that is unmistakable even at a tremendous distance.” C.J. Box, Open Season.

“Deep in Honduras, in a region called La Mosquitia, lie some of the last unexplored places on earth.” Douglas Preston, Lost City of the Monkey God.

“The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.” Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad.

Snippets

          The sign painted on the side of the Vietnamese restaurant: “As for me, give me a bowl of pho and I am happy. Anthony Bordain.” And I wondered what he ate on that final day.

          When my young friend turned around, I could not help but notice the shiner under his left eye. Some guys tried to rob him as he got out of his car. A scuffle ensued, with my friend adamantly maintaining that he got in some good blows, but clearly, he also took one. The would-be robbers ran off when a shopkeeper came out of his store, and my friend lost nothing. I commiserated with him and told him about various incidents involving me, the spouse, and the nonbinary progeny. I asked him if his girlfriend had been with him. “No,” he said, but he saw her the next day. He said that she had been very sympathetic. He hesitated for a moment. A slight grin appeared—his first smile of the evening. Then he said, “Sympathetic sex is very good.”

          I read Habakkuk today. I found some beautiful poetry. I should read that Bible book more.

          All those TV sports shows in addition to just interviewing college athletes about the game ought also to ask the athletes about their favorite professors and then produce clips of those teachers in the classrooms and interacting with the athletes outside of classes. (Or does that not happen?)

          How did a woman in a hoop skirt get into, much less use, an outhouse? The spouse’s answer, “She didn’t.”

I am Donald J. Trump.

Although I shunned the draft,

Patriotism I thump.

It is my great craft

To tweet out “treason”

For those who have good reason

To question what I have done.

It gives me no pause

To label as traitor

Those who don’t cater

To my evident flaws.

I may not have served

(My feet were so spurred!)

But to my critics, I would take out a gun.

          “The girl who can’t dance says the band can’t play.” Yiddish Proverb.

          “This is America, where you are allowed to speak the truth as long as nothing changes.” Alexander Chee, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.

For Preexisting Conditions, Spouse Means Wife

The Democratic candidates for president all have healthcare. All would have protections for pre-existing conditions. One of Trump’s major 2016 promises was to repeal Obamacare and replace it with something better although neither he, nor the Republicans, ever put forward a healthcare plan. Trump, however, has said that “we will always protect patients with pre-existing conditions.” Even so, he is currently asking the courts to strike down the Affordable Care Act, including its protections for pre-existing conditions, although we are still awaiting his healthcare proposal. (I am not holding my breath waiting for it. That would be bad for my health.)

I have had personal concerns about insurance coverage for a preexisting condition. (Funny word, “preexisting.” It seems to mean existence before existence. That doesn’t seem possible. When it comes to insurance, it really means an already-existing condition, but for some reason we use what should be the nonsensical “preexisting.”) I had a bad shoulder. I would have said that I had a dislocation problem, but that was not accurate. The bone did not come completely out of joint. I could pull the arm back into place with my free arm. I might have called it a partial dislocation, but the doctor who replaced my shoulder joint recently defined it as a subluxation.

The original subluxation had happened when playing football in college (that is how I usually explain it, leaving out the fact that it was intramural football), with the next one about six months later. When the bone partially slipped out of joint, it hurt like hell with residual pain for days afterward.  Over time, those disconcerting events happened with increasing frequency. Five years after the initial injury, it was time to get the joint repaired.

I did not have health insurance of my own. I was finishing what I hoped was my last year of schooling, and back then the only health insurance I was aware of was tied to employment. I had already accepted a job to start the following September. I would have health insurance through this employer, but I undertook the fun job of reading the policy and found the preexisting-conditions clause. The plan would not cover any health condition that existed when I first became insured.  Instead, the preexisting condition would only qualify for coverage two years down the road, assuming I was still in the same job. Waiting that long to have the shoulder surgery would not have been the end of the world. It was not as if I had cancer or imminent liver failure or was going blind. But it meant a couple more years of painful, partial dislocations and the awkward lifestyle changes that I had adopted to minimize them—not lifting my arm above my head, sleeping in ways so that rolling over would not cause the subluxation, and so on. It also meant living with a constant level of pain that could be tolerated but still was not exactly fun.

The spouse, however, had a job, and she had a health insurance benefit. I read that policy, too. It said that spouses of the insured were covered, and since she had been working for a while, the preexisting limitation did not preclude my shoulder surgery. I went to a famous shoulder surgeon who was ready to do my repair, but both he and the hospital wanted a notice from the insurance company that my treatment would be covered. We went to the benefits administrator at the spouse’s work, who, to our surprise, said that the company’s insurance would not cover me for anything. “How can that be!?!” I exclaimed. I showed her the clause in the many-paged policy mandating coverage for “spouses” of the insured. The wife was the insured, we all agreed, and she and I were married, so I was the “spouse.” Ergo, I was covered. “No,” the administrator patiently explained, “‘spouse’ meant ‘wife.’” That is what it had always meant, the bureaucrat stated. We learned that female spouses were considered beneficiaries under the plan because, apparently in those distant days, no husband of a female employee had ever sought to be covered under this provision of the policy before. The women utilizing the plan were either single, or if married, had husbands who had their own insurance or were too proud to seek spousal coverage.

I was flabbergasted, but not so much so that I could not pronounce the word “sue.” There are advantages to being a lawyer, even though back then I had little idea how to bring a suit. But the threat produced a further consideration by the wife’s employer and insurance carrier. With much grumbling, they decided that they would cover my shoulder surgery.

The wife left that job a little while later. After I had the surgery.

Marathon Bingeing

          On the morning of November 3, I will wander down the block and watch the strange sight of thousands and thousands of people running by on a carless street. It will be the New York City marathon, and the intersection where I will stand is mile eight of the more than twenty-six-mile course.

          Watching people run by whom I do not know should be boring, but for the forty-five minutes I will spend it is not. The sidewalk will be jammed with neighbors, guests, and visitors. Music with a strong beat will be playing. The first competitors we will see are the disabled participants in racing wheelchairs who start separately from those who are ambulatory. They are wildly cheered and encouraged by the crowd. Then an empty street with anticipation building for the first runners. A phalanx of motorcycles and trucks carrying cameras roars up Lafayette Avenue, and we become alert because we know that right behind these vehicles are the elite marathoners, one of whom hope will win the race. Many will be from African countries, and they will largely be in an Indian file at the center of the road. Then a small group of runners appears a hundred yards back. They are awfully good runners but are not going to win. Each year I wonder how these people feel—better than 99.99% of all those who run—but who will never come in first or even third or fifth. Does their ability make them feel good or are they just frustrated?

          Now we are on the lookout for the first women runners, also the elite. As a cheer went up for the first men, another erupts when the first woman is spotted.

          Soon the runners no longer appear as individuals. They stream as groups, but for a while longer almost all are still clustered within five feet of the street’s centerline. This changes every moment as more and more runners are in sight. Soon they cover the pavement from curb to curb. We can’t even glimpse he opposite side of the street, and it will remain out of sight for an hour or more as thousands and thousands of running people go by. This river of runners may be made up of many individuals but together it forms a new flood flowing east anticipating the turn north. It will then leave Ft. Greene and enter Williamsburg.

          I find myself noticing the colors that bounce by. This is not a uniformed sport, and the running clothes comes in many hues, often indicating the nationality of the wearers: Rumania and New Zealand, Japan and Nigeria, and almost every country in between. Some carry messages—“World Peace,” “Fight Climate Change,” “Marry Me Becky,” “My Kids Are the Greatest.” Some run in costume—every so often I spy a bunny rabbit or a Santa Claus. At one time there were a lot of Obamas. How many, if any, Trumps will there be? A few simultaneously juggle as they run. I have seen a guy running backwards. For years, a man in a tuxedo ran carrying at shoulder height a dining room tray with a glass on it as though he were going to serve champagne at the finish line.

          I watch the gait of the runners. Some have a high knee lift while the feet of others only clear the ground by a few inches. Often the different styles are side by side so it seems as if each is equally efficient. Some are awkward as a new-born colt; some are as graceful as a gazelle.

          Many of the runners seem to be in their thirties, I but find myself looking for the outliers. I am somehow when I see those who are sixty or seventy, and I spot many.

          Even though the run is not even a third over where I watch, some of the runners will look as if they are straining, and I wonder if they will make it. Some look as if they are merely coasting and do not care about their time. Others seem as if they are pushing themselves, chasing a PB—a personal best.

          As the crowd of runners increases and seen more and more blur by, I feel something akin to a vertigo. It’s time to go home. I will turn on the TV because even though runners are still going by my viewing spot, eighteen marathon miles away the elite runners will be approaching the finish line. I can hear through my windows cheering for those at the end of my block commingled with cheers on TV from Central Park, and I will be struck as I am every year that soon there will be a winner while many still have two-thirds of the race to go.

          And through all of this, I always feel a bit of pride that I, more than once, ran this marathon, and I wonder if I am happy or sad that my body no longer will allow it.

          But to all those run on Sunday, I wish you good luck, or I suppose more appropriately, God speed.

Snippets

          After I came out of Pedro Almodóvar’s latest movie, Pain and Glory, I thought about the term “adult film.” It is used for movies with graphic depictions of sex even though teens and pre-teens and not particularly mature adults are interested in the subject matter. On the other hand, there are many films where the young and immature do not have the experience, knowledge, or empathy to be drawn into the movie. They are just bored if they go. These are films for adults, which, of course, is quite different from adult films.

          I wonder how many adults knew who Stormy Daniels was before her connection with Donald Trump hit the news. Yet she was identified frequently as an “adult movie star.”

          The first Almodóvar film I saw was Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. How many of you thought that the title was redundant? Hold up your hand if you think that question is offensive? How many of you have nail polish on that hand?

Overheard at a Feminist Conference

Sisters, this may sound ominous,

But we all have a touch of the mom in us.

                   Richard Moore

          As I passed two young men on the sidewalk, I heard one demand, “Well, who then brought the urine?” If there was a reply, I was out of earshot.

       I ran into the postal carrier in front of my house. I said that I would take the mail up the stoop and save her some steps. She thanked me, and I asked her how many steps she did during her work. She tapped her watch and said, “According to this, about 16,000.” (Just in case you ever wondered.) I asked her how many flights of steps.  (It is twelve steps up from the sidewalk to my mail slot. Sometimes my Fitbit registers this as a flight of stairs but sometimes, aggravatingly, not.) She said her device did not have flights of stairs.

          I read the handout that I was handed, and parts of it gave me concern about the performance I was about to see. The bio of the playwright said, “He’s been honored to receive commissions and developmental support from institutions like [emphasis added] The Kennedy Center/New Voices New Visions, The Eugene O’Neill Conference, The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, and Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor Residency.” I assumed that the playwright had written this. He probably meant that he got support from the listed institutions, but he wrote that he got aid from institutions that were akin to the ones mentioned. My concerns about the production further increased because the artistic director for the theater company wrote, “It is a pleasure to produce a playwright who creates well-defined and complexed [emphasis added] characters.” Is there such a word as “complexed”? Does it mean something different from “complex”? These are people whose careers involve good writing. But in spite of my concerns, the play was quite good.

Chasing Waterfalls (concluded)

While conversations among guests in a hotel or motel are usually sparse and fleeting, bed and breakfast guests often chat with each other. Perhaps we all want to feel we are in one of those novels from a hundred or more years ago where the characters are in a boarding house, as in Balzac’s Pere Goriot, or in an Italian pensione, as in Forster’s A Room with a View. With the shorter stays in a B and B, the deep character-revealing conversations of the novels are not the norm.  Primarily the conversations are started with: “What did you do today?” “What have you planned for tomorrow?” “Where are you from?” “What do (or did) you do?” “Where are you going?”

The first morning I was in the Idlwilde bed and breakfast, I was reading on the porch in the chilly air. Another man appeared, and I learned that he was from a small town in western Wisconsin. I grew up in eastern Wisconsin, and he quickly reminded me of some of my relatives as he told me in exacting detail the route he had driven from his home to Watkins Glen, emphasizing at length how he had successfully skirted Chicago. I don’t remember how he shifted the topic, but soon I heard him telling me that his wife did not really like wine, but she had sampled wine in Door County, Wisconsin, that appealed to her. It was made from cherries, and yesterday the good wife was pleased to find a winery that had sweet wines. The Finger Lakes region has many wineries and has been primarily known for its Rieslings, many of which are far from dry. The Wisconsin woman, however, did not like Rieslings. I was assured that they were not sweet enough, but she was happy when she found, as her husband put it, a wine like soda and was even happier when another place offered her a wine slushie. I made a note not to join that couple for dinner.

On Saturday morning, both a prospective bride and prospective groom were breakfasting. I thought this a tradition-breaker until I learned they were not marrying each other. Two marriage parties were at the bed and breakfast. We exchanged only a few words with the bride-to-be, but the soon-to-be husband came over to talk with us. He had hours to go before his ceremony, and he was already hyper and told us about the family car business he was in, the merits of Toyotas, how he was marrying a childhood sweetheart, how they had drifted apart when they went to separate colleges, how they got back together, and like that. He scrolled on his phone until he could show us a picture of the wedding location. To the delight of the spouse and me, he was going to be married in front of a waterfall.

The spouse and I most enjoyed talking with a couple from England. He was retired from the UK’s Foreign Office. They had been posted to various places in the Mideast and to Calcutta. He was, however, a little vague about what work he did in these locations, making me think, “Hmmmm.” He had gone to school in Washington, D.C., when his father, also in the Foreign Office, had been posted to Washington, but this was her first trip to the United States. The trip had been timed so that they could go to the U.S. Open tennis tournament. She was especially happy to sit in Arthur Ashe Stadium. As a schoolgirl, she had seen Ashe play at Wimbledon and found him “elegant.” He remained a favorite.

They had been four nights in New York and then four more to Boston. From there they went to Stowe, Vermont, an apparent must-see for Brits visiting the states. They had driven from Vermont to Watkins Glen, and as with other Europeans I have met, they were surprised how big the country is. After the Finger Lakes, they were heading to Niagara Falls, and we discussed what we had liked there. After that, they were going to Toronto and then home. They were lively, charming, knowledgeable—you never know from a few brief conversations, but they seemed like people I would like to be friends with. It was only slightly disconcerting that the spouse found him to be among the most handsome men she had ever met, something the spouse remarked upon repeatedly.

While our stay at the Idlwilde was interesting, our point for being in Watkins Glen was to chase waterfalls, in this case the waterfalls of Watkins Glen State Park. A deep gorge ascends over a mile-and-a-half up a thousand feet and it boasts nineteen waterfalls. We did not have to do much chasing to find the waterfalls. It was a gorgeous walk—a spectacular end to our chase.

After hiking the gorge, we headed to Hammondsport, a nearby town where we found the Glen Curtiss Museum. As a young man, Glen Curtiss was a bicycle builder and racer. Soon he became a motorcycle builder and racer. And then he became an airplane builder and flyer. The museum contains artifacts and reproductions from all aspects of his career including his earliest plane and his seven-foot-long motorcycle upon which he set a speed record of 136 miles per hour in 1907, a motorcycle record that stood until 1930.

He is largely unknown now, but he was especially important in the early stages of aviation. The Wright Brothers may have been first, but Curtiss was next, and his many innovations were essential for the early growth of the flying industry.

The Wright Brothers were very aware of Curtiss. The secretive brothers had obtained patents for airplanes, and in the opinion of many, excessively broad patents. One of the patents was for the methods of controlling a plane in flight. The Wrights depended on wing warping, the twisting of the wing, to help steer a craft. Curtiss improved on that by putting ailerons, the forerunner of what now exists, on the wings. Orville and Wilber yelled, “Patent infringement!” This fight went on for a decade and was only resolved when the patriotism and necessities of World War I demanded a resolution of the conflict. Animosity, however, lingered on for years.

A dinner in a popular local restaurant, breakfast the next morning, and our trip of chasing waterfalls concluded. We returned to our own summer community and our own waterfalls. Buck Hill Falls has several beautiful ones, but that is a story for another day.