1. At sunset, tonight [September 24, 2014 on the solar calendar] the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah began.
2. Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the new year 5775.
3. According to Wikipedia tonight “is believed to be the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, and their first actions toward the realization of humanity’s role in God‘s world.”
3. Here is The Jewish Publication Society’s translation from the book of Genesis. “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They [sic] shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth. And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created them; male and female. He created them. God blessed them and God said to them, ‘Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.'” The creation of Adam and Eve took place on Friday, the sixth day of creation.
4. “Chabad, also known as Habad, Lubavitch, and Chabad-Lubavitch, is an Orthodox Jewish, Hasidic movement,” explains Wikipedia. According to Chabad, whose Orthodox movement inspired the first eight years of my elementary school education: “Rosh Hashanah…emphasizes the special relationship between G‑d and humanity: our dependence upon G‑d as our creator and sustainer, and G‑d’s dependence upon us as the ones who make His presence known and felt in His world. Each year on Rosh Hashanah, ‘all inhabitants of the world pass before G‑d like a flock of sheep,’ and it is decreed in the heavenly court ‘who shall live, and who shall die . . . who shall be impoverished, and who shall be enriched; who shall fall and who shall rise.’ But this is also the day we proclaim G‑d King of the Universe. The Kabbalists teach that the continued existence of the universe is dependent upon the renewal of the divine desire for a world when we accept G‑d’s kingship each year on Rosh Hashanah.”
5. A note on the spelling of God’s name. When I was a student at the Hebrew Academy of Greater Miami, (when founding Rabbi Alexander S. Gross was principal), I wrote God’s name thusly, “G-d.” To be more precise, I followed standard practice of altering the spelling of God’s name in Hebrew. The teaching was in keeping with the Commandment not to take the Lord’s name in vain. One did not say the name correctly or spell it out in English or Hebrew.
6. Subsequently, I became a member of Conservative and Reform synagogues where observance is not taken as literally as my elementary schooling.
7. I am currently a member of State College PA’s Brit Shalom, a congregation that combines Conservative and Reform practice. My rabbi is David Ostrich, a wonderful man.
8. Rabbi Ostrich has just written a special prayer-book for Rosh Hashanah and the High Holidays. It is called the machzor.
9. Wikipedia: “The mahzor…is the prayer book used by Jews on the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur….The prayer-book is a specialized form of the siddur, which is generally intended for use in weekday and Shabbat services.The word mahzor means ‘cycle’ (the root … means ‘to return’). It is applied to the festival prayer book because the festivals recur annually.”
10. Brit Shalom exclusive: Rabbi Ostrich’s mahzor has just been published this Rosh Hashana.
11. Here is a section Rabbi Ostrich emailed me yesterday from the mahzor:
12. QUESTIONS AND MYSTERIES WITH WHICH WE STRUGGLE
“As much as we are masters of our own fates—making decisions and living with the consequences, there are also times when greater powers toss us around like small boats on a stormy sea.
“Whether the “storm” is caused deliberately by God—as a punishment or a test—or by the vagaries of the natural world, we find ourselves victims or objects of the slings and arrows of fortune. Are events pre-determined, or do we have free will?
“This ominous prayer, Un’taneh Tokef, has for some 1500 years represented our people’s grappling with this question.
“We know that many of our decisions make a difference, but we also know that greater powers impact our lives in significant ways.
“We pray that the greatest of powers eases our way and makes our challenges manageable, and we pray that the decisions we make will be good ones.”
A live recording from the Vocalise Festival on November 23, 2010 in Potsdam, Germany.
Cantor Azi Schwartz and the RIAS Kammerchor, conducted by Ud Joffe. This setting of Un’tane Tokef (from the High Holy Days liturgy) by Raymond Goldstein.
I Joel wish you my readers a sweet and happy New Year. May you be recorded in the Book of Life.
I have been describing my third cancer experience at age 65 when I was diagnosed in April in State College PA and had a successful operation in August in New York City at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
How did I survive cancer three times?
How was I able to father two daughters after massive radiation treatment?
Why was cancer treatment responsible for my becoming a paraplegic?
What was my emotional state during these three experiences which otherwise might have forced me to concentrate on death rather than enjoying life?
Answers may be difficult to provide, but what follows is my first attempt to use language for the ineffable.
Five years after my experience with Hodgkin’s disease, my publication on the subject in The New York Times, my appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America, I received a book contract and proceeded to interview formally (receiving signed releases) and on tape the accounts of my:
Members of the therapy group who first learned I had cancer
Writing the book was difficult especially revisiting the radiation treatment room at George Washington University Medical Center where the chief radiologist had died from exposure to his own machines.
Making the difficult an easy read was also difficult and slow.
What follows is Chapter One of Learning to Live Again, My Triumph Over Cancer.
What follows is the entire chapter one of Learning to Live Again: My Triumph Over Cancer, published by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, then a subsidiary of CBS.
I DO NOT HAVE CANCER ANYMORE. The disease was treated by conventional radiation therapy, and my physicians say that it has been eradicated. I believe that I have been cured, despite a recurring nightmare that a doctor is examining my body, checking for lumps.
Today, I had lunch with Laura in the oak-paneled dining room of the Hay-Adams Hotel. We each had two drinks and needed more. Our love affair became a casualty of the cancer cure. Too much intensity was confined to too short a period of time, time that always seemed to be running out. Although we tried afterward, we were unable to salvage our relationship. Today, I told Laura that I am engaged to marry another woman—Diana, whom I met after the cancer experience was over. Laura and I toasted to the future—a future that we will not share.
It is spring here in Washington. The cherry blossoms are out early.
Spring this year feels the same as it did five years ago. I continue to live in the same city and in the same apartment. At thirty-three, I am too young to write my memoirs. Yet that is what I am doing, reliving the period five years ago when I was diagnosed as having cancer and feared death. The diagnosis and its treatment—over a period of six months—was the worst experience of my life. Remembering how poorly I behaved is worse than remembering the physical pain and the fear.
Now, five years later, my statistical category has changed. Today I conform to the American Cancer Society’s definition of cured: five years without a recurrence of symptoms. A generation ago my type of cancer, Hodgkin’s disease, was described as “invariably fatal.” A generation ago I could not have survived five years. I would not have lived to interview family, friends, and physicians, nor to revisit the hospital in which I was operated upon and treated. The difficulties of remembering and surviving would have been denied me.
ON FRIDAY AFTERNOON, April 23, 1976, I am sitting in a doctor’s office worrying. Worrying is something that I do a lot and am good at. At the time I do not realize that I have much more reason for concern than when I normally worry about (a) money, (b) getting the article in on time, (c) my relationship with Laura, (d) finishing the book, (e) cleaning the apartment, and so on. Specifically, I am in the waiting room of Aaron Falk’s * office because there is a small lump—about the size of a golf ball—under my right arm. The lump does not hurt, and it is noticeable to no one but me. However, it has been there for a number of weeks, and several times a day I find myself feeling under my armpit to check whether it has gone away. The lump has joined my mental list of things to worry about.
Given how regularly I worry about my health—running to a doctor’s office at the first sign of a cold, a sore throat, or a backache—I do not anticipate that my first appointment with Dr. Falk will be noticeably different from previous appointments with other doctors. My experience as a mild hypochondriac is that doctors find my ailments boring. I leave their offices feeling embarrassed for bothering them and stupid for paying so much money to find out that there’s nothing wrong with me.
Indeed, I have made the appointment because I want to be reassured that nothing is wrong with me. This time I am sufficiently concerned about the lump that I am willing to risk the likely embarrassment and expense. However, the longer I sit in the waiting room, the more convinced I become that the lump is inconsequential and that it will probably disappear if I wait long enough. I am convinced that Dr. Falk, whom I have yet to meet, will be polite, but in a tone that will imply that doctors go to medical school to cure really sick people and why does he have to waste his time seeing obviously healthy people like me.
As I read the plastic sign welcoming patients to talk about physician fees with the physician, I decide that now that I am in the doctor’s office, I can stop worrying about the lump and start worrying about money. My concern about money at this time has a rational aspect to it. As a free-lance writer my income is precarious. I have difficulty obtaining insurance. My previous policy, with Stan, a friend of a friend who agreed to let me join his group plan, was terminated because Stan pocketed the payments rather than sending them to Blue Cross. That experience has made me feel insecure about my current plan, with the newly formed Washington Independent Writers. The paperwork is already fouled up. Despite the organization’s reassurance that my membership card has been processed and is in the mail, I worry that I may not be covered by insurance at all. So as I appraise the doctor’s office, which is in an expensive neighborhood, provides free parking for its patients, has its own laboratory on the premises, and offers a spacious waiting room (where a large potted plant has cedar chips covering the soil), I am concerned that the tests and doctor’s fee will be more than I can afford—and all for a complaint that will probably turn out to be nothing.
Aaron Falk begins, as doctors do, by asking why I have come to see him. I tell him about the lump under my arm, that it has been there for several weeks, that it doesn’t hurt, and that it hasn’t gone away. I ask, “Is it serious?”
He says, “I don’t know yet. First let’s get the usual questions out of the way. Then we’ll go next door where you’ll take your clothes off and I’ll examine you. We’ll take some routine blood tests and a chest X ray. When we’re done with that we’ll come back here and I’ll tell you what I think, assuming I think anything. Okay? Now, how old are you?”
“I’m a writer, specializing in agricultural policy.” We talk about that for a while.
We get along instantly. Our ability to communicate seems uncanny. There are not the usual barriers that separate doctor from patient. Dr. Falk is only seven years older than I, so we relate as peers. He is not condescending toward me, as are physicians who make themselves inaccessible because of their specialized knowledge.
BY THE END Of the day, I was calling him by his first name, because it seemed artificial for him to call me Joel while I was calling him Dr. Falk. In retrospect, I must have decided to trust Aaron as soon as we met, when I entered his private office and sat down on the wood-and-wicker chair.
At the time of this first visit, I knew nothing about his educational background. Dr. Falk graduated from Harvard College and went to the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. I also did not find out, until much later, that Dr. Falk and I shared a similar religious upbringing: he attended the Hebrew Academy of Washington; I went to the Hebrew Academy of Miami Beach. While I soon rejected the ritual and ever-present discipline of orthodox Judaism, Dr. Falk continued to observe it. Indeed given the additional distance I was then putting between myself and Judaism, if I had known about our shared religious background, it would have put distance between us.
AARON is the same height as I am-5 feet 10 inches. He is thin and although prematurely gray, he looks younger than he is. Our preliminary small talk clearly makes him impatient, an impatience he has difficulty curbing. He recognizes the necessity of getting acquainted, but fidgets as he sits, uncertain about what to do with his large hands and arms, patently restraining the impulse to dash down the corridor and “do something.” This impatient, almost distracted manner extends to his dress. He is wearing a regulation jacket and tie, but it is that and no more, he looks neither dapper nor even coordinated, his clothes the expression of a man who has more important concerns. He talks in spurts, the way professors do who are more comfortable with scholarship than students. Sentences are strung together rapid-fire, followed by long pauses while he weighs each word. He suspects that he’s transparent and that everyone knows what he’s thinking when he’s thinking it. So Aaron smiles a lot during his embarrassed pauses or when I am talking too long, as if to say, Dealing with people comes awkwardly, but I want you to like me. The smiles work. His eyes light up, expressing interest, even tenderness.
“Marital status?” Aaron asks.
I must be more frightened than I realize. Rather than say, “Single and divorced,” which is how I usually automatically answer the question, I launch into an exposition on the intricacies of New York State’s divorce laws, which five years previous made it more convenient to get an annulment than a divorce. When I respond to a simple question with a long, irrelevant answer, it means that I don’t want to deal with whatever’s going on.
On the way to the examination room he asks how I’ve been referred to him. I say, “I see Dr. Bernstein” (an ear-nose-and-throat specialist whom I visit for colds and allergy attacks). “I asked the secretary what kind of doctor specializes in lumps. She said an internist and gave me your name.”
“You certainly are lucky,” Aaron says. “Not only am I an internist, but this office’s specialty is hematology.” (He does not mention that the office’s other specialty is oncology—the treatment of cancer.)
We are now inside the examination room and he says, “Take off your clothes and I’ll be right back.”
He stops moving and answers. “It deals with disorders of the blood. It means, you might say, that lumps are our bag.”
What he says frightens me. Instead of asking the obvious—”Do I have a disorder of the blood?”—I revert to worrying about money. Telling him of my concern I say, “Tests are expensive and I’m short of funds right now. Can you go easy on the tests?”
Abruptly, he places his right arm against the door, as if to stop himself from exiting. Turning toward me, he seems suddenly angry as he says, “Nobody’s going to tell me how to practice medicine. If I order tests, it’s because I think they’re necessary. I’m a doctor and my concern is your health. I don’t give a damn about the money. If you can’t afford it, then you can’t afford it. We’ll work something out. You’ll pay me if you can, and if you can’t then you can’t. Money is the last thing we need to worry about now. I’m not going to let you tie my hands by telling me not to order the tests I need to practice quality medicine.”
After I take off my clothes, he feels the lump under my right arm, asking whether it hurts as he touches it. It doesn’t hurt. Kneading my skin with his fingertips, he feels for lumps under my left arm, under my ears and behind my neck, across my abdomen, and at my groin. There aren’t any other lumps.
He asks, “Do you have sudden chills or wake up sweating in the middle of the night?
“Have you been running a fever?
“Do you have sudden outbreaks of itching?
“Have you recently experienced sudden and unexplained weight loss?
“Do you suffer from loss of appetite?”
I answer no to all the questions, and when they stop, I say, “Why are you asking me this? What’s wrong with me?”
He says, “I don’t know that anything’s wrong with you. Go to the lab around the corner—he points the way—”and they’ll take some blood. The nurse there will direct you to the X-ray room. After you’re done with the chest X ray, get dressed and return to my office. Then, we’ll talk.”
If there were more room in the office, he’d probably pace, trying to figure out some way of saying what he wants to say without frightening me. Instead, he leans awkwardly against a bookshelf and, in a rush to get it over with, blurts out, “Look, I don’t know what the lump is. It’s probably nothing, but I don’t know. I think it’s a good idea for you to see a surgeon so he can remove the lump from your arm and we can examine it and find out what it is.” He is trying hard to convey as much information as possible, so I can understand his perspective and make a rational decision. He smiles abruptly, as if to apologize for what he’s just told me, and asks, “Are you willing to see a surgeon?”
“I guess so.”
“Can you do it right now?”
He gets on the phone and calls a surgeon named Cory Simpson and inquires whether he can see me right away. He can. Aaron says about me, “Yes, he’s perfectly capable of walking over. In fact, I’ll tell him to run over. He’ll be there in a few minutes.”
Aaron gives me Simpson’s address, which is about five blocks away. He says, “Look, it’s Friday afternoon and you’re lucky that Dr. Simpson can see you right now. I want him to have a look at your arm. Then come back here so we can talk.”
As I leave his office, he calls after me. “Hey, there’s nothing to worry about. I don’t want you to be alarmed. It’s best to do these things quickly, just to be on the safe side.”
As I am crossing L Street and New Hampshire Avenue, it does not occur to me to question why I am listening to this doctor’s urgent instructions or why I trust him. I am puzzled because never before has a physician taken my physical ailments quite this seriously. Fear is creeping up on me, fear because the doctor has asked me specific questions and because it seems that I have a specific disease; fear because he says he specializes in disorders of the blood and by implication that’s what I may have; fear because I am en route to a surgeon. I have never had an operation, and I’m a coward when it comes to pain. Fear because a doctor thinks that an operation is necessary at all. But I don’t actually feel frightened yet. I can tell that the fear is coming, but am able to put it off, not wanting to be afraid, too busy concentrating on getting to Simpson’s office and on obtaining as quickly as possible a new range of information that I’ll need to deal with this situation. I know that I’ll be frightened later, but for the moment my curiosity is stronger than the fear. I consciously decide—like Spock in “Star Trek”—to banish my emotions and concentrate on being logical.
I arrive at Dr. Simpson’s office and am filling out the insurance form when the doctor comes out. “Are you Mr. Solkoff?” Pointing to the insurance form, he says, “You can do that later. Why don’t you come into my office?”
Simpson is also not much older than I. He is tall, thin, and wears a tapered three-piece designer suit. Among George Washington University medical students, who are notoriously hard on their instructors, he has a reputation for being a very fast and very good surgeon.
Right away, I find him to be unpretentious and easy to understand. He feels the lump under my arm and says that he doesn’t think there will be any problem removing it. He reassures me that the operation won’t be painful (which I don’t believe), that I’ll be awake while he does it, and that I can return to work right away.
I say, “What’s the rush? Why did Dr. Falk tell me to run over here?”
“Aaron has a tendency to be enthusiastic. He probably thinks it’s a good idea to find out quickly what that ‘lump,’ as you call it, really is.”
“What do you think it is?”
“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask Aaron.”
SIMPSON’S ATTITUDE toward me, from the beginning, was matter-of-fact. Later, he told me, “In reality, as a surgeon I was actually put in the position of being just a technician. I was not making major decisions regarding your care. The major decisions were really made by Dr. Falk—and you, of course.” He explained that surgeons, like anyone else, would prefer to be creative and in a position of authority.
Instead, as often happens, he was asked to do a routine task which he had done hundreds of times before. He was perfectly willing to explain the procedure to me and consistently answered every question asked about surgery and possible complications. However, regarding speculations on my diagnosis and life chances he continually referred me back to Aaron, whom he regarded as my primary physician. Whenever I asked whether he thought a procedure Aaron recommended was necessary, he said yes, telling me that Aaron was a respected physician who specialized in conditions like mine and whose judgment was trustworthy.
Eventually Simpson told me, “You and I are relatively close in age, and since I could avoid thinking about your dying, I did.”
Simpson and I never became friends, as opposed to my relationship with Aaron. I still don’t know Simpson well, and I doubt that many people do. Yet I respected him. He was easy to be with during painful and stressful situations. Like Aaron, he has an off-beat sense of humor, which we shared and enjoyed, and while there was nothing memorable about our jokes and bantering, it made future events easier that we all “horsed around” (as Aaron put it), often in a self-deprecating way. Given the closeness in our ages, none of us took offense or felt threatened when I complained about Simpson’s sutures or Aaron’s plans for treatment or when they complained about my behavior. Had they been much older, or had I been much older, my relationship with my doctors would have been more decorous—making the whole experience grimmer.
BACK AT AARON’S OFFICE, I ask what he thinks the lump is. He says, “It may be nothing at all, just some fatty tissue.” “But you think it’s something else?”
“I don’t think it’s something else. I don’t know what it is. That’s why I want to find out.”
“What else might it be?”
“It’s probably a benign tumor.”
I am frightened by the word tumor. Having assumed that I’d never have to deal with a tumor, each time the word appears in conversation I tune it out. “If it’s benign, why is it swollen?” I ask Aaron.
“All tumors are enlargements, abnormal growths. Most just happen, for reasons which are complicated and about which we’re not entirely sure.
Most tumors are benign, which means they’re not serious, and when we remove them, there’s nothing to worry about. The chances are that yours is benign and that when Dr. Simpson removes it, you and I will be done and you can go about your business.”
“And if it’s a serious tumor?” I don’t want to say the word cancer.
“I don’t think it’s serious, but if it is, then we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
We talk about scheduling for the operation. He wants the tumor out of me as quickly as possible. I realize that walking around worrying that I have “something serious” when I probably don’t is stupid, and the sooner I know the better. But I don’t want someone else or something else controlling my life. I have an article to complete on Cesar Chavez, which Marty Peretz, the owner of The New Republic, commissioned and is expecting. Already, I am beginning the process of negotiating, trying to fit the problem of my tumor into my schedule. Aaron says firmly, “Don’t wait too long. This is something that should be taken care of right away.” I promise to call Simpson’s office and schedule an appointment.
* While all characters in this book are real, several names have been changed.
Here is Tim McGraw singing on just this very subject.
He said I was in my early forties With a lot of life before me And a moment came that stopped me on a dime I spent most of the next days Looking at the x-rays Talkin’ ’bout the options And talkin’ ’bout sweet time”
I asked him
“When it sank in
That this might really be the real end
How’s it hit you
When you get that kind of news?
Man, what’d you do?”
“I went skydiving
I went Rocky Mountain climbing
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fu Manchu
And I loved deeper
And I spoke sweeter
And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying”
And he said
“Someday I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dying”
“I was finally the husband
That most of the time I wasn’t
And I became a friend a friend would like to have
And all of a sudden going fishin’
Wasn’t such an imposition
And I went three times that year I lost my dad
I finally read the Good Book, and I
Took a good, long, hard look
At what I’d do if I could do it all again…
And he said
“Someday I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dying
Like tomorrow was a gift
And you’ve got eternity
To think about
What you’d do with it
What could you do with it
What did I do with it?
What would I do with it?
On this Sunday night, I am sitting in my apartment four blocks away by scooter to Penn State’s iconic Old Main. You have seen it on television.
Contemplating my forthcoming cancer surgery, I cannot help but express my gratitude.
My gratitude extends the length and breadth of the Borough of State College under the inspiration of our dynamo Mayor Elizabeth Goreham.
The Borough of State College includes all Downtown, which is at economic risk, suburban State College (but not suburban enough to collect the large revenues). and Penn State University.
We are all Penn State here.
First and foremost, I want to thank Elaine Meder-Wilgus.
Webster’s Bookstore and Cafe has immeasurably improved the quality of my life here. Book Store Duchess Anne and I contemplate Webster’s related activity, such as promoting the bookstore with a recreation of the Battle of Trafalgar. We require three floats such as are featured at the Rose Bowl, each retailing for $120,000.One ship on the converted float would be the one where Lord Nelson dies; there would be a French and Spanish ship as well. Of course, the helicopter with Elaine playing Lady Hamilton. Funding has been a problem.
Thank you employees and patrons of Webster’s Bookstore and Cafe. Thank you.
I thank my neighbors, friends, Cathy Fisher, Bryan and the excellent maintenance staff, and the owners and managers of my apartment building.
Other than names already mentioned, I will not use this space to express my appreciation of my family and friends–except when I get the urge.
This posting is intended to express appreciation for the environment where I reside. So, herein is the way I have arranged my thank you’s, including my thanks to:
The Department of Architectural Engineering at Penn State
I thank, of course, my dear friend Fire Chief Steve Bair.
I also thank Police Chief Tom Kane, who has been thoughtfully responsive to my emails–long as they are.
I also thank my assemblyman Scott Conklin. I especially like Scott–period. I am glad that he is a real union man.
I also thank my REPUBLICAN Congressman Glenn (“GT”) Thompson [Republican,. Fifth Congressional District of PA]. GT was a physical therapist before he was elected to Congress despite my active campaign against him on behalf of his Democratic challenger Mark McCracken.
GT met his wife while they were changing bedpans at the nursing home I will enter by default if anything happens to me. Since his election to Congress, GT has displayed an admirable record regarding medical oxygen, wheel chairs, scooters, and power chairs–equipment that is indispensable to paraplegics such as myself and to others in the disability community. President Obama, despite his rhetoric–holding my nose voting for him this time around–having voted for candidate Obama in the PA primary and then worked for his first election insisting that Democratic headquarters pour new concrete for its broken down wheel chair access ramp.
Excuse the rant. The point is GT has been an inspiration to the durable medical equipment community even if he is a Republican.
Regarding health care gratitude, I do not know where to start. When I had pneumonia in November right before Thanksgiving, I felt like hell. I called 911. The ambulance was here in no time. I breezed through the Emergency Room and would up in a room with a view and I had a really great doctor–right down the road at Mt. Nittany Hospital where the food is good.
Let us start with Sapana Minali, my primary care physician at Geisinger Medical Center. When the excellent and gracious urologist Jennifer Simmons diagnosed that I had cancer, Dr. Simmons referred me to Sloan Kettering in New York for a surgical consultation….
When that happened, my primary care physician was informed that I was discharged from the hospital but with a kidney cancer diagnosis. Dr. Minali then directed her staff to call me and when that did not work after many un-returned calls, Dr. Minali called me herself.
Meanwhile, she directed that I receive social services available to someone in my situation, and the wonderful Doreen Moronski found me the Bob Perks Fund, which provides grants to individuals who have to travel for medical reasons. My grant pays my monthly rent every four months for a year, plus provides a $160 grocery store card every quarter.
Thank you Bob Perks.
Regarding the Jewish people: Words cannot describe my gratitude to Rabbi David Ostrich, who performed the State College memorial service for my mother Dr. Miriam P. Schmerler at my apartment building–where we had a minyan.
My attachment to the Jewish people is based on my strong belief in Zionism, my great love for the Hebrew language (the Bible is great stuff in the original), and my attachment to things Jewish. My spirituality has not been invoked by traditional Jewish practice. I have been strongly spiritual for as long as I can remember. I am very fond of the Wisdom of the East. Confucius’ Analects and the teachings of the Buddha have provided me with understanding. Rabbi Ostrich has been demonstrating to me the compatibility of Eastern teachings with an understanding of The Torah.
Congregation Brit Shalom and the Jewish Federation of Pennsylvania have provided me with the funding that made it possible to receive cancer treatment in New York City, 250 miles away from State College. For my June trip to Sloan Kettering, where Dr.Russo decided to operate, I received $1,500. It is astonishing how expensive is New York. After shopping around, I found a cheap garage that would let me park the car for $400 for the week I was there for tests and consultation.
Last week, Rabbi Ostrich met me at the PNC bank on College Avenue and provided me with an additional $1500 for this trip to New York for surgery and two weeks of recovery. This total of $3,000 exhausts the extent of generosity from a small congregation. Thank you, landsmen of my Congregation including the Bagel Boys.
Thanks to the Jewish people: I was raised by a single mother in the 1950s when that was no picnic. My mother supported us on her salary as a teacher of Hebrew school teacher, a Hebrew school principal, and an Educator. She liked it when people called her a theologian.
I remember first hearing the words of the Bible in Hebrew when I was five. From grades 1-8, the day began at the Hebrew Academy of Greater Miami with a pledge of allegiance to the U.S. flag and a singing of the anthem of the State of Israel–both flags displayed.
During those years, I read the Five Books of Moses in the original Hebrew in the mornings and studied English subjects in the afternoon. There was a lot to praying.
While I have rejected much, my love of the Hebrew language remains. My support for Israel as a safe, peaceful, Jewish entity is strong. “If I forget Jerusalem, let me forget how to use my right hand….”
What I have always found to my surprise and relief is the availability of Jewish Family Services and similar organizations to be there for me because that is what our people do. We care for each other.
I may get emotional here, so forgive me in advance.
I have a strong feeling about my work.
I have spent years learning how to write.
Now, I know what to write about.
I write about how to overcome the limitations of a disability and live life to the full.
For the past four years, I have been working as a research assistant at Penn State’s Department of Architectural Engineering. Dr. John Messner hired me.
Given the still recovering construction industry’s state, the building of hospitals and medical facilities–taking place at a rapid pace–has proven to be a great relief. The images projected on John’s three screens viewed with 3-D glasses are intended to help architects, engineers, and construction personnel conceptualize design and then make changes before construction begins.
John assigned me to work with now Dr. Sonali Kumar’s whose graduation I attended in May, one week before my daughter Joanna graduated with her usual honors from nursing school.
Sonali’s thesis is entitled, Experience-based design review of healthcare facilities using interactive virtual prototypes.
Yes, I am in Sonali’s thesis. See below.
I was the model for her avatar for the independent living virtual reality module designed in Autodesk’s BIM-compliant Revit and imported into a Unity gaming engine.
Somewhere in my appreciation from the virtual reality lab, I became obsessed with McKeesport, a Pennsylvania Rust Belt town with high poverty, a lot of crime, and two gifted men the brilliant Robert Walters and the capable and enabling John Bertoty who created a Blueroof Research Experimental Cottage.
The cottage was constructed in a factory where sensors were placed in the walls. With digging the foundation, it took 3 days to assemble the structure. The cottage contains a living room, kitchen, bathroom, and two bedrooms.
Cameras are available at the client’s option for monitoring. Motion detectors can tell whether a resident has fallen in the shower and communicate that information by voice simulation to 911 as a call for help. This is off the shelf technology.
This kind of low-cost housing for low-income individuals represents an understanding of how to design a residence for elderly and disabled individuals that helps them live their lives.
During a period when the largest generation in U.S. history is retiring–Baby Boomers retiring at the rate of 10,000 a day…. There is no way the housing stock in our country can support the demand.
Over 90 percent of U.S. housing is NOT wheel chair accessible.
Then, along came Dr. Richard Behr, Chair of the Center for Aging in Place at the Department of Architectural Engineering. (Why at the Department of Architectural Engineering? you may ask. Ask.)
Richard and I became planners. A Pittsburgh foundation had paid $50,000 to design a plan for downtown McKeesport. Richard and I wrote a grant proposal to the Ford Foundation for the funding to execute the plan. I plan to go back to the Ford Foundation for reconsideration.
Dr. Memari and I are coauthoring a report entitled
Renovating Existing Housing to Provide Individuals with Mobility Disabilities the Opportunity to Live Independently
The book contains a lot of photographs of independent living facilities where design modifications should have been required. I will be submitting my work thus far to Dr. Memari by close of business on Thursday.
Gratitude is hard to express. Syrup often accompanies it. More of the gratitude I feel will be expressed as time goes by.
[I miss my friend Lee. Certainly, this posting exists for remembering old friends especially one of my classmates at the Hebrew Academy of Miami Beach where Lee was voted most likely to become Secretary of State. Flamboyantly arrested and taken out of Manhattan’s flagship Brooks Brothers store in handcuffs for embezzlement to support substance abuse, Lee was simultaneously one of:
My best friends
Most spiritually advanced
Most charming people I have ever met
A bemused and loving uncle to my daughters (often invoking the blessings of a moderation he rarely possessed).
[Sometimes, Lee seemed to be an incarnation of Proteus.
[Lee died shortly after a great run as a lobbyist (http://bulk.resource.org/gpo.gov/hearings/107s/78596.txt; see witness list for this Senate Judiciary Committee hearing) with two master degrees in substance abuse testifying before Congress on the importance of rehabilitation therapy. He died when each of us were experiencing spectacular reversals in our personal and professional lives. This was a time when we had little to give ourselves and therefore nothing to give each other except the remembrance that from the age of 6, we each shared lives as friends.
[As with many of my good friendships, there were many moments when each of us said the unspoken to the other, “How can I be friends with him?”
[The police found Lee’s decomposed body in his apartment in Washington, DC and had him cremated. His priest and close friend Robert Finamore located Lee after considerable effort. My name and phone number were in Lee’s wallet. Robert invited me to the memorial mass he was conducting at his parish and asked me to deliver a eulogy. Some news is so terrible I could not stop crying.
[Last weekend, I opened a box that had remained sealed for over a year. The box had been sent by my friend (and as it turns out archivist) Bonnie Blumenthal Finkelstein who proofread the original of the eulogy. Some boxes, just as some memories, are best left unopened. For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under Heaven.
[I created this blog to provide a home for the kind of questions Lee’s eulogy raises in my now 63 year-old mind about the nature of life and friendship. The forces that caused the box to be opened also reveal tales for another time.
[Suffice it to say that the magical weekend the box was opened, my elder daughter Joanna was driving an ambulance while preparing to enter nursing school, my younger daughter Amelia was running with the bulls in Pamplona, and I was preparing one of my trademark exotic celebrations—this time concerning Ernest Hemingway.
[Lee (who bequeathed to me the meaning of “spiritual calling” while simultaneously abjuring not to make too big a thing of it) would have been amused that his eulogy has appeared below as a piece of objet trouvé before summer turns to fall.
[Soon cold and darkness will require the unusual (with a moral you have to find yourself)—a story uncovering the special meaning of why Lee learned to ice skate at a hotel in Miami Beach (during the 1950s) when the temperature outside was in the 80s.]
EULOGY FOR JOHN (LEE) AVERY (APRIL, 1948–SEPTEMBER, 2004) AT HIS MEMORIAL MASS, ST IGNATIUS CHURCH, FORT, WASHINGTON, MD http://www.saint-ig.org/, OCTOBER 30, 2004, DELIVERED BY JOEL SOLKOFF, LEE’S FRIEND SINCE 1953
We took Hebrew and eventually Aramaic classes in the morning and English classes in the afternoon.
I was there for 8 years. Lee graduated a year later having become president of his class in the yeshiva.
In 1972, on the day Lee’s mother died, he was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church in Miami Beach where he had secretly been attending religious instruction for months. A year later he regarded his conversion as complete when he legally changed his name from Lee Avery Rosenhouse to John Avery.
He chose the name John as homage to Pope John XXIII, who had inspired him.
To some of his friends and colleagues he was known as John. When I once suggested to Lee that I would call him John if he preferred, he gave me a noblesse oblige glare and said, “No; because you are an old dear friend, you can still call me Lee.”
This is a good time to pause and focus on the life of a man whose name changes require me to clarify just who it is we are mourning today. My daughter Joanna observed that the manner of Lee’s untimely death makes today especially difficult because you and I did not have the chance of saying goodbye properly.
Over the course of my life, I have seen Lee go from being a law school student to an executive at Brooks Brothers, from an alcoholic with other drug-related problems (most notably cocaine) to a recovered survivor who received two master’s degrees in his disease and ran a substance abuse clinic——eventually becoming a Congressional lobbyist on behalf of treatment professionals.
The often operatic drama of Lee’s life and the charm and talents we experienced in his presence made it difficult to know who Lee really was. Much of the time, Lee was engaged in an elaborate form of denial which he referred to as “Let’s pretend.”
It is hard to look at the reality of his death without feeling anger and sadness at the unrealized expectations we had for Lee.
If Lee had died a year earlier with a little money in his pocket, with his career as a lobbyist still intact and his HIV still under control, we could have lauded him as a success:
·A man who had overcome alcoholism to help others afflicted with the disease
·A man who had survived the AIDS epidemic still mindful of its consequences
·A man who had survived with his faith in God intact
Instead, Lee died
·out of work and hope
·neglecting his HIV medication
·alone in his apartment
·found only after his body had decomposed for several days
The issue is not that a “better” death would make it more comfortable to eulogize Lee. But the reality is that there were two Lees–the one his friends and I wanted him to be and the one he actually was.
I realize that the point will come when I can shed my anger and sorrow that the ever-changing nature of Lee’s behavior could not lead him to the life of happiness and fulfillment I would have wished.
Indeed, my intention in this eulogy is to focus on the Lee who actually was—the man we mourn today and the man I loved as a brother.
Lee’s gift to me was the opportunity to accompany him through key moments in his difficult life journey. I will spend the rest of my time with you today listing the following six lessons I learned from Lee and discussing some of them:
1.Anecdotes make it easier to confront reality.
2.The rich are like you and me.
3.Not being a homosexual, I really do not understand.
4.It is harder to stop drinking than you might think.
5.Spirituality can perform miracles.
6.Few problems cannot be solved by being dressed adequately for the occasion.
Lee could tell a story more effectively than almost anyone I knew.
One of the big difficulties Lee faced was the way Mose and Estelle Rosenhouse handled the fact that they had adopted him when he was an infant. When he was in college and the family was in the midst of a truly ugly ﬁght about money, one of Lee’s relatives said, “You’re not really a Rosenhouse” and that’s how he found out.
Years later Lee commented he suspected he was adopted because his parents treated him “like a pet poodle.”
Lee told the story about a conversation his mother Estelle and her friends had on their experiences with childbirth.
When it was Estelle’s turn, she regaled the audience with bogus detailed descriptions of her labor pains with Lee.
When I met Lee in 1953, he seemed rich by all the standards of my childhood. His parents paid full tuition at the Hebrew Academy plus they were big contributors to our school. By comparison, my mother paid with difficulty at a deeply discounted rate.
There was considerable difference between the way teachers and fellow students treated the rich and the poor.
Shortly after we became classmates, Lee’s parents, as my mother described it, “adopted” my mother and me.
I was being raised by a single mother in the 1950s when divorce was a big taboo and my mother earned little money as a Hebrew school teacher.
Mose and Estelle established a lifelong friendship with my mother which began with our annual attendance at their house for Passover Seders.
I saw Lee’s life from the perspective of my apartment which was on the wrong side of south Miami Beach at a time when south Miami Beach was the wrong place to live.
I was soon to discover to my surprise that Lee was unhappy even though his house was in fashionable north Miami Beach. The house was large and artistically furnished—including a tasteful living room painted chocolate brown—a color Lee was to adopt effectively in adulthood when designing his drop-dead chic apartment in Roslyn, Va.
The Rosenhouse dining room contained a shockingly bad mural of Roman ruins and the dining room had enough space to accommodate all Lee’s large extended family over whom Mose presided with the genial air of a benign dictator.
Mose and his brother Dave were partners in their own highly-respected Miami law ﬁrm. Mose’s sister Sarah was his secretary. There were eccentric aunts and uncles on both Mose and Estelle’s side of the family, one of whom was always in residence in a spare bedroom with private bathroom. The room was reserved for relatives down on their luck like Uncle Mike (formerly a concert violinist) at the time working behind the counter of a delicatessen. In later years, Lee would wonder whether he had not in effect become Uncle Mike.
Lee’s aunts and uncles adopted me in a gush of Southern sentimentality— relatives whose alcohol, drug, and reality abuse Lee frequently compared to Tennessee Williams at his most decadent.
In short, when we were children, Lee had a very large family and I had a very small family. But my envy for Lee quickly changed. The fact that we were both such bad athletes that we were always the last two players chosen for kickball served as a larger image of what our rotten childhood was like and served as a bond between us.
Lee’s father died when he was in college. His mother died when he was in his mid-20s. By the time Lee was 30, Aunts Sara and Dora were dead and Lee spent a large chunk of his small inheritance going from funeral to funeral of more and more distant relatives.
Lee’s cousin Bobbie, who is in attendance this afternoon, can tell you the shock Lee experienced as the large all-embracing family of his youth was virtually extinguished.
As a child Lee thought he was rich. His father drove a new Cadillac every year. Lee had whatever material possessions he wanted including ice skating lessons—Lee became an excellent ice skater at the rink of a luxury hotel in Miami Beach, Florida. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6amr5ecQJWw&feature=related
One way the observers of Lee’s family measured their wealth was air conditioning. In the 1950s, air conditioning was not ubiquitous in Miami Beach. Only a few private individuals could afford the cost of keeping their houses cold——and the colder it was the bigger the status symbol. Lee’s parents constantly kept the house at 55 degrees when the temperature outside was in the 80s and 90s. You had to wear, a sweater when you went to Lee’s house. One of the secret parlor games of family friends was to guess the monthly air conditioning bill.
When Lee died, he had a cell phone because he could not afford a standard phone. He told a friend that he could be reached only at night because he had counted up the minutes and he could no longer afford the cost of talking before 9 at night.
Indeed, Lee was raised in a house of privilege and prestige. When his father died, for example, the funeral notice was on page one of The Miami Herald, hundreds attended the service. The mayors of Miami and Miami Beach attended as did Mose’s representative in Congress.
During his childhood Lee hated himself. His biggest challenge was achieving self-esteem. To Lee’s credit from childhood on he understood that the goal that matters most in life is not material, but spiritual. He later expressed his goal in such terms as the love of God, the forgiveness of Jesus, or (as I was always quick to add to his assent) Enlightenment.
The fact Lee was only partially successful does not diminish the heroic nature of his spiritual goal and the difficulty life gave him to meet it.
This brings me to the subject of Lee’s homosexuality. Our society may be approaching a day when the issue of a person’s sexual identity will be as irrelevant as hair color. However, Lee hated the fact that he was gay. His alcoholism helped lead him to a life of promiscuity that was as intense as the remorse he expressed the following day. The lesson Lee drew from his homosexuality, alcoholism, poor self-esteem was the conclusion that he had a call from God to become a Roman Catholic priest. Lee believed that his call would make it possible for him to transform his self-loathing to beneﬁt others like himself. Lee believed he had G0d’s call to minister to gay men who felt they had been abandoned by God because of their sexual orientation. This belief became clearest to Lee in New York when the AIDS epidemic was at its worst. In the 1970s, Lee had become a novitiate for a Jesuit order in Philadelphia (http://www.jesuitcenter.org/grounds.htm) but he needed to return to the secular world for a while. When he emerged from the AIDS epidemic (which exacerbated his alcoholism), he was HIV positive. When he applied to join a holy order in Boston, the order rejected him (after serious consideration) because it could not afford the insurance risk. I believe that decision was a tragedy. Lee would have been a great priest and the satisfaction that comes from heeding the call of God and successfully ministering to his ﬂock would have nourished him to the point where he would be with us today. .
No eulogy of Lee’s life would be complete with a discussion of clothing and style. Clothing served many functions for Lee. He could have written Dress for Success, which he once recommended to me with a long list of seriously considered exceptions. When Walter Mondale was vice president and Lee was an executive at Brooks Brothers, Lee accompanied the tailor to the Office of the Vice President and for months regaled friends with the story of how he saw the Vice President in his underwear. Powerful men from both political parties stopped by Brooks to ask Lee’s advice on what to wear.
There were times when his self-contempt got the better of him and he would sit on his Door Store chair in the chocolate-brown living room in Virginia and list just how much it had cost for him to dress himself—designer suit, shoes, tie, shirt plus watch and other jewelry “$2500 plus.”
Then, he would compare how he looked to how he felt about his value. “It cost me $2500 to walk across the street, but I don’t feel like I’m worth 2 cents.”
But there were other times—times when getting dressed became like some Japanese tea ceremony, when Lee effortlessly put himself together, getting the tie just right, attending to the crease in his trousers, smoothing out his shirt collar, when Lee achieved his own self-realized style that transcended form—a style whose admirability nobody could deny. I choose to believe that Lee is now in a place where he no longer feels the necessity to deny his own worth or to change his name again.
Lee and I at my bachelors’ party, October, 1981, National Press Club, Washington, DC