Category Archives: From Where I Sit Column

My mother Dr. Miriam P. Schmerler

My mother when she was 20.
My mother when she was 20.

 

Eulogy for my mother Dr. Miriam P. Schmerler

Monday, September 6, 2010, State College, PA

“People do not wish to learn about how to deal with death until they are confronted by death, and when they are confronted with death they are not inclined to study how religion approaches it,” writes Maurice Lamm in The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning.

My mother, Miriam Pell Schmerler, died this morning September 6, 2010 at about 3 AM. She died after a lengthy stay at the Blumenthal Jewish Nursing Home and Rehab Center where the chart says she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

For all Mother’s professional life, which began at the age of 16, she was a Hebrew school teacher, principal, and administrator in the Jewish bureaucracy—known jocosely as “the Jewish civil service.”

In 1992, at the age of 67, Mother received her doctorate in Hebrew letters from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Her thesis Graced Moments in Time: Undoing of Anti-Semitism as a Theologoumenon Within Post Vatican II Catholicism

Her thesis focused on Pope John XXIII’s efforts to rid the Roman Catholic Church of its poisonous teaching that the Jews killed Jesus, and the thesis describes how the Pope enlisted the help of Rabbi Abraham Heschel, a theologian who at the time had taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the center of the Conservative Jewish movement, with the title Professor of Theology and Mysticism. (He also smoked cigars.) Heschel is best known for his friendship with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and for his opposition to the War in Vietnam.

Mother’s academic writing on ecumenicism began with her master’s degree from Barry University in Florida where her thesis concerned the daily life of Jesus and the ways in which he followed Jewish teachings.

At Greensboro North Carolina, Mother served as an ambassador to Temple Beth David’s Rabbi Eliezer Havivi speaking at churches on protestant ecumenical statements revising doctrine on who killed Jesus, showing church leaders and congregants how Jesus celebrated Jewish holidays, and becoming a lifelong member of Greensboro’s interfaith council. Mother’s love for the Hebrew language and her knowledge of it was employed on a regular basis as she attended Beth David’s services and corrected the Hebrew of celebrants, leading, indeed, to the current culture of her synagogue where the quality of Hebrew is excellent. Mother spent a summer at State College PA working on the Jewish Publication Society’s landmark translation of the Bible into English.

Mother is also survived by my sister Sarah Schmerler, who is an artist in her own right, a widely published art critic, and an instructor to artists on how to use language to describe their work, especially in grant proposals, Sarah is the mother of one of Miriam Schmerler’s three grandchildren, Asher Simonson, age 8 who is crazy about Legos products with a Star Wars theme.

The other two are my children Joanna Marie Solkoff, 25, an EMT who is about to begin nursing school at Chapel Hill after receiving an honor’s BA in English, where she wrote about obscure novels by the guy who wrote Robinson Crusoe. Amelia Altalena Solkoff, 20, is currently spending her junior year abroad in Spain and we recited the Jewish mourner’s prayer over a Skype connection earlier today. Both Mother’s granddaughters smoke cigars.

I plan to sit shiva, a Jewish custom of mourning during which I will say prayers in Hebrew and Aramaic and receive visits from my friends. The Jewish community at Congregation Brit Shalom, under the direction of Rabbi David Ostrich, a wonderful rabbi, will take good care of me. I will continue to cry as I think about my mother and mourn her death.

–Joel Solkoff

 

My mother in 1925
My mother in 1925

 The following was published in June of 2010 shortly before my mother died. It appeared in my monthly column From Where I Sit,  produced on a monthly basis for Voices of Central Pennsylvania, my spiritual home here in State College, PA.

The column appeared regularly for over a year, written sometimes between hospitalizations but submitted on time and limited, believe it or not, to 750 words.

Sometimes, I used the Voices Web Site to expand on material contained in the monthly printed column. My appreciation to the brilliant Suzan Erem, then Managing Editor of Voices, and to Bill Eichman, the gifted Webmaster and current President of Voices, is considerable.

The issue of travel barriers for people like me who cannot walk and require battery-powered scooters and power chairs is considerable. It is worthy of note that the State College airport refuses to allow disabled individuals to board who are confined to power chairs.

Travel barriers limit lives of those with disabilities

 “Are you really my son?” my 84-year-old mother, who suffers from dementia, asks. Six weeks ago my mother, Dr. Miriam Pell Schmerler, stopped answering the telephone by herself. Our weekly calls were models of  the bizarre, with my combining Hebrew and English into the conversation, knowing that hearing my name in Hebrew sparked recognition not otherwise available.
The once a week calls followed a pattern. I would tell her that I was her son. “Really?” she said, “how nice.” Then we would talk about some aspect of her life: her career including a doctorate in Hebrew letters (received in her late 50s) from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
In our calls I repeatedly identified everyone, Mother’s daughter, grandchildren, and husbands. “You know you were married three times.” “Three times,” she said “that’s a lot, isn’t it?” I then described each of her husbands, including my father who was 27 years older than she. “Isn’t that a big difference in age?” she asked.

The ongoing saga of her life amused her. It filled me with a tenderness for my mother I do not recall ever having felt.

I remember Gerald Sakamoto, my Buddhist minister from the San Jose CA Buddhist Betsuin, saying he had “issues” with his mother.

The word “issues” seems so refined and polite I adopted the word instantly. During our conversations, the issues disappeared. My cousin Michael once commented about how witty and charming my mother is. I said I had never observed it. Michael said, “Of course not. She is your mother. She cannot allow herself to be witty and charming in front of you.”

Now that she did not recognize me, other than as a friendly caller telling stories about her life, my mother became a real person for me. My children, Joanna and Amelia, found distress in Mother’s inability to recognize her grandchildren. While I tried to explain my perspective, I could not alleviate their distress.

Nor could I alleviate my own distress in mid-March when I called Mother and she did not answer the phone. I began a new routine, calling the staff at the excellent Blumenthal Jewish Home for the Aged in Greensboro, NC and asking Jackie, Brooke, Marina, Mary Anne or Kim to go to mother’s room and hand the ringing phone to Miriam. My mother’s voice conveyed a sense of confusion and distress. The conversation was largely gibberish. It became clear that I had to see her. But how?

The answer is circuitous. My 1993 Buick was broken. I entrusted it to Gary D. Green’s College Heights Exxon, a wonderfully reliable institution. My mechanic Jeff told me he needed more time to figure out what was wrong. Nevertheless, I needed to go to Altoona, headquarters of the Blair/Clearfield Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, for which I work.

I researched bus service to Altoona which would take me downtown (and my power chair has enough battery power to take me to and from the office), but I could not get to a safe accessible motel where I planned to stay the week. There is no train.

I had heard about a disability van service called Wheelchair Getaways. After talking to Shannon Markley, I decided to pay for the incredibly expensive rental, knowing my creditors would and would not understand. When Shannon mentioned a slight discount for a week or more, I decided to spend the weekend seeing my mother—something I could not do otherwise. For a lengthy drive, neither my Buick nor my stamina could be relied upon to hold up while going from the wheelchair lift at the rear of the car to the driver’s door, brushing my body against the car in the process.

The van has a button on the ignition key, which when pressed twice, opens the passenger-side panel door and a wheel chair ramp unfolds. I drive my power chair (the airlines at the State College airport refuse to accept power chairs on their flights) up the ramp. After closing the door with two key presses, I use the controls for the driver’s seat to move the seat back, sideways and up, so I can transition from power chair to driver’s seat without difficulty.

Without the van, I would not have been able to go to work, see my mother and have lunch with my two children. This month’s column raises an ongoing theme: the critical nature of travel for those of us with disabilities. Employment opportunities require going to where the work is located. Families separated by miles need to be together even if only on occasion. The worst thing for the economic survival and the individual feeling of self-worth is being confined to one’s room without the opportunity to earn an income and see loved ones. Travel must be made easier for those of us with disabilities.

Joel Solkoff, author of The Politics of Food.

Mother and me, 1959

 

 

My father and mother on their wedding day 1945
Standing, left to right: My mother, daughter Joanna, sister Sarah, me holding daughter Amelia, grandmother Celia, 1990

 

 

Waiting for the energy to crawl along the car into the driver’s seat


 

[Note: I was planning to show the last photograph I took of my mother, but it pains me so and she would not want you to see it.]

 

 

“Individuals with Disabilities Remain One of Our Nation’s Greatest Untapped Resources”

“Individuals with Disabilities Remain One of Our Nation’s Greatest Untapped Resources”

A shot from the revolver of the Rhode Island policeman went off by mistake. The bullet hit Jim Langevin, a 16-year-old boy, who was a police cadet in a Boy Scout Explorer Program. It hit Langevin’s spine and kept going. The damage made him a quadriplegic (paralysis of both arms and both legs).

Rep. Langevin is the first quadriplegic to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. To enter the House chamber 10 years ago, when he was first elected, the maintenance crew made the chamber wheelchair accessible and removed two fixed seats in the front row so Langevin could maneuver his power chair and effectively address his fellow colleagues. Langevin has made his reputation in Congress as an expert in terrorism, computer security, and biological warfare.

This column comes to you at an awkward time. This column will appear in early December, before the seasonal gloom causes you to cheer up others with presents. This December/January issue of Voices stays on the stands until Jan. 31, by which time you will have already broken the New Year’s resolutions you have not made yet.

More to the point, for those of us who care more about politics than football, December marks the end of the lame duck Congress, controlled in the House by the Democrats and is succeeded in January by a new 112th Congress with a large majority of Republicans (63) new members) and not enough Democrats in the Senate to break a filibuster, but enough to sustain a presidential veto.

In short, the next two years promises to be a period when NOTHING will get done. Since Congress controls spending, it is possible that legislation that was dear to the president’s heart will find itself without the money to implement. For those of you so inclined, Gloom is a gift that will not go out of style, especially between now, February first, and beyond.

This column focuses on the problems and opportunities of the elderly and disabled here in Centre County. I chose to interview and profile Langevin because of a letter he signed at the end of the summer, just as the vacuous senate race in Pennsylvania was beginning to heat up. The other signer was Glenn Thompson who represents us here in State College. Langevin is a liberal Democratic; Thompson a conservative Republican. Langevin voted for Obama’s health care reform bill; Thompson voted against it. Why are these two unlikely representatives working for the same cause?

The cause is the fight to keep local medical suppliers in business. This is a cause that affects me personally because without a battery-operated wheelchair I would not be able to go from my bed to the bathroom, or to the kitchen to make dinner, or outside to work and make a life for myself. Previous attempts to reduce costs by giving large corporations, some outside the Commonwealth, contracts to provide wheel chairs, scooters, power chairs and oxygen, have resulted in companies with unsavory reputations receiving the lowest bid and raising the likelihood that poor and middle class individuals who are unable to walk face long waits for equipment delivery, maintenance and repairs. The consequence of these waits are likely to be accidents of the kind that would force independent people with disabilities to move to assistive living resulting in cost increases many times greater than Obama’s penny pitching savings on medical equipment.

Langevin and Thompson agree to end competitive bidding and (the subject of the end-of-summer letter) to halt Medicare’s requirement that customers be given the option of renting their chairs for a 13 months, rather than buying them—through Medicare–in the first month. Power chairs are custom designed to the needs of individual patients, and forcing medical suppliers to pay for them in advance will badly damage a business that is already strapped for cash.

Langevin’s exclusive written interview of over 1,700 words is available on my blog at voicesweb.org. Thompson and Sen. Robert Casey, Jr. have expressed the desire to give you their points of view. Stay tuned.

The big issue, of course, is money. Does our country have enough money to invest in the talent of those of us who are disabled and elderly? Langevin maintains, “Individuals with disabilities remain one of our nation’s greatest untapped resources, and they continue to face challenges in accessing employment, transportation, housing and even health care.”

–Joel Solkoff, author of The Politics of Food. Contact him at [email protected] or at voicesweb.org.

Won’t ride ‘em cowboy: This is my final column

Note: The following is the text of my February, 2011 column at Voices where I announce the end of my From Where I Sit column. The hard copy text, complete with a photograph of me, is available at newsstands in Centre County. I am reproducing it here for two reasons. First a reader insisted that I was required to explain my rationale more fully or, in her words, “face a grilling.” I therefore intend to call my next blog Grilling in which I not only explain but provide the reader with reassurance that the issues of the elderly and disabled will continue to be covered at Voices–only not from me. Not within the context of this From Where I Sit monthly column. Writers interested in covering such subjects are requested to get in touch with me at the email address below.]

The handler applies the fully charged cattle prod to the rear of a bull bred for ferocity. The cowboy—Slim really is his name—holds onto his hat with his left hand. In his right hand are the reigns, two strips of leather held on tightly at first, but capable of falling apart to help the rider jump away from the bucking bull to safety after the regulation eight second ride is complete.

The maximum score is 100 points; 50 for the rider and 50 for the bull. A mean angry bull is the most desirable because he gives the rider the opportunity to make the most money. This bull is mean. When the bull jumps higher after the cattle prod, Slim smiles with optimism. The gate leading to the ring fails to open. Historically, when the gate sticks, a confined maddened bull has been known to break both legs of a rider. Slim, who attended rodeo schools, is aware of the danger.As a reporter at the World Series of Rodeo at Oklahoma City (before it moved to Los Vegas), I am sitting next to the handlers on the inside wooden planks of the chute. It took considerable effort to get permission to be this close to Slim—close enough to watch his pupils dilate into huge ovals displaying a fear he cannot disguise. The lead handler asks Slim if he would like to wait 20 minutes before beginning the ride. Slim nods him off. The gate opens.

Sometimes it is prudent to know when to give up. I have been writing this column since October, 2009. One reader observed that my columns made her suspicious because of their apparent clarity, establishing a formula where I said clearly what I was going to write about and wrote it. She asked if I were hiding something amid this seeming clarity. I have been hiding my overall intention; namely, the necessity for the physically disabled, regardless of age, to achieve independence—independence for those of us whose bodies may not work, but whose minds do. The requirements for getting a good job include the tools to do the job, the income necessary to get off public assistance, and the opportunity to develop our talents so we can improve the nation’s economy. This is a complex set of tasks and does not fit neatly onto a piece of paper affixed with a magnet to the refrigerator.

For those of us unable to walk, hear, or see the first task of necessity must be to rid ourselves of anger or at least pretend it isn’t there. Whatever the virtues of expressing how I feel, I have learned that when I am angry in public, I am on the express lane to defeat.

The Roman poet Catullus wrote, “I love and I hate. Do not ask me why I do so, but I am in torment.” Often when I write this column I am overwhelmed by the fluctuations (depending on my mood over the day) of love and hate projected on to a specific person or situation. Often I write multiple drafts of the same column, each thousands of words long until the emotion subsides and I can describe calmly a discrete 800 word section of my overall objective.Today’s current political situation leads me to despair that independence for individuals with physical difficulties will not come in my lifetime. It will not come because Democratic and Republican leaders do not regard it as a priority given our country’s other pressing problems.

Fortunately, I have the opportunity to leave my anger with the present and work on a training program at the virtual reality lab where Dr. John Messner has been creating 3-D programs showing how to construct accessible buildings before workers even begin to dig the foundation. Specifically, I am working with Sonali Kumar on what she calls “the bleeding edge” of technology to design models for independent elderly housing.

I am providing advice based on my experience as a disabled person who lives in independent elderly housing. Instead of maintaining the self-destructive illusion that I know more than everyone else, I am returning to a land of technology where what I don’t know fills the air like the thick steam on the top bench of a Turkish bath. There is so much to learn and all of it will help my people—individuals with disabilities. It is time for this cowboy to stop riding. I do not have the energy to both write this column and plunge into the future.

When I am sufficiently trained, I will report to Voices on what the future will be like.

Joel Solkoff, author of The Politics of Food. Contact him at [email protected]

Travel barriers limit lives of those with disabilities

The following is my June, 2010 column From Where I Sit for Voices of Central Pennsylvania:

“Are you really my son?” my 84-year-old mother, who suffers from dementia, asks. Six weeks ago my mother, Dr. Miriam Pell Schmerler, stopped answering the telephone by herself. Our weekly calls were models of  the bizarre, with my combining Hebrew and English into the conversation, knowing that hearing my name in Hebrew sparked recognition not otherwise available. The once a week calls followed a pattern. I would tell her that I was her son. “Really?” she said, “how nice.” Then we would talk about some aspect of her life: her career including a doctorate in Hebrew letters (received in her late 50s) from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

In our calls I repeatedly identified everyone, Mother’s daughter, grandchildren, and husbands. “You know you were married three times.” “Three times,” she said “that’s a lot, isn’t it?” I then described each of her husbands, including my father who was 27 years older than she. “Isn’t that a big difference in age?” she asked. The ongoing saga of her life amused her. It filled me with a tenderness for my mother I do not recall ever having felt. I remember a Buddhist minister saying that he had “issues” with his mother. The word “issues” seems so refined and polite that I adopted the word instantly. During our conversations, the issues disappeared. My cousin Michael once commented about how witty and charming my mother is. I said I had never observed it. Michael said, “Of course not. She is your mother. She cannot allow herself to be witty and charming in front of you.”

Now that she did not recognize me, other than as a friendly caller telling stories about her life, my mother became a real person for me. My children, Joanna and Amelia, found distress in mother’s inability to recognize her grandchildren. While I tried to explain my perspective, I could not alleviate their distress.

Nor could I alleviate my own distress in mid-March when I called Mother and she did not answer the phone. I began a new routine, calling the staff at the excellent nursing home and asking Jackie, Brooke, Marina, Mary Anne or Kim to go to mother’s room and hand the ringing phone to Miriam. My mother’s voice conveyed a sense of confusion and distress. The conversation was largely gibberish. It became clear that I had to see her. But how?

The answer is circuitous. My 1993 Buick was broken. I entrusted it to Gary D. Green’s College Heights Exxon, a wonderfully reliable institution. My mechanic Jeff told me he needed more time to figure out what was wrong. Nevertheless, I needed to go to Altoona, headquarters of the Blair/Clearfield Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, for which I work.

I researched bus service to Altoona which would take me downtown (and my power chair has enough battery power to take me to and from the office), but I could not get to a safe accessible motel where I planned to stay the week. There is no train.

I had heard about a disability van service called Wheelchair Getaways. After talking to Shannon Markley, I decided to pay for the incredibly expensive rental, knowing my creditors would and would not understand. When Shannon mentioned a slight discount for a week or more, I decided to spend the weekend seeing my mother—something I could not do otherwise. For a lengthy drive, neither my Buick nor my stamina could not be relied upon to hold up while going from the wheelchair lift at the rear of the car to the driver’s door, brushing my body against the car in the process.

The van has a button on the ignition key, which when pressed twice, opens the passenger-side panel door and a wheel chair ramp unfolds. I drive my power chair (the airlines at the State College airport refuse to accept power chairs on their flights) up the ramp. After closing the door with two key presses, I use the controls for the driver’s seat to move the seat back, sideways and up, so I can transition from power chair to driver’s seat without difficulty.

Without the van, I would not have been able to go to work, see my mother and have lunch with my two children. This month’s column raises an ongoing theme: the critical nature of travel for those of us with disabilities. Employment opportunities require going to where the work is located. Families separated by miles need to be together even if only on occasion. The worst thing for the economic survival and the individual feeling of self-worth is being confined to one’s room without the opportunity to earn an income and see loved ones. Travel must be made easier for those of us with disabilities.

Joel Solkoff, author of The Politics of Food.

New column speaks to disabled, elderly issues–from Voices of Central Pennsylvania

July 2017. State College/University Park, PA. Years later, this reflection on the Sandusky scandal still rings true:
++++

“As a former graduate student at Penn State with a disability and as one who is part of the elderly community, the focus by powerful officials on football-above-all has also been used to cover up exploitation of disabled and elderly students and students who are veterans (especially disabled-veterans) and to discourage recruitment of such individuals to become students. Also, this exploitation has extended to the community economically dependent on Penn State.”

 ++++
Note: I am in the process of critiquing the report issued by former FBI Director Louis Freeh issued in July of 2012. The report, which was commissioned by the Board of Trustees at Penn State, concerned what is popularly referred to as the Sandusky sex scandal. Freeh, in issuing the report, pointed out the danger of the "football culture" at Penn State which gave license to officials in power to ignore predatory sexual practices on children. 
As a former graduate student at Penn State with a disability and as one who is part of the elderly community,the focus by powerful officials on football-above-all has also been used to cover up exploitation of disabled and elderly students and students who are veterans (especially disabled-veterans) and to discourage recruitment of such individuals to become students. Also, this exploitation has extended to the community economically dependent on Penn State. As partial background regarding this contention, I am here republishing the monthly column I wrote for Voices of  Central Pennsylvania, then edited by the gifted Suzan Erem. The column appeared from October of 2009 until February of 2011. What follows is the first column.

From Where I Sit

In high school I was a junior befriended by a sensual senior who shared her physical love with others, but talked philosophy to me. I would have preferred it the other way around, but I had no choice. If I wanted to benefit from the privilege of being in her presence (and I did), then I had to sublimate my lust by talking about existentialism—
Sallie’s philosophical passion.

Existentialism is not as chic today as it was when I was 15 or 16. Jean Paul Sartre had not yet refused the Nobel Prize in Literature, nor had he turned his back on literature—deciding finally to complete Being and Nothingness and other non-fiction. The central philosophical question that haunted us adolescents—Why am I here?—remains through our old age.

For me the question takes on an added dimension. At 28 I was diagnosed as having a relatively rare form of cancer that a generation earlier killed virtually everyone who had it. For much of my early adulthood, an astonishingly large number of physicians believed the disease was universally fatal. Oxford University Press published an impassioned plea to physicians to reconsider their notions of doom. Today, the disease is nearly universally curable. For a while, the people who began the cure with radiation machines underestimated its power and a large number of radiologists died while curing others. My radiologist at George Washington University Hospital in Washington D.C. died before I reached the five-year disease free mark. Seymour Kaplan, the Stanford University radiologist who published the Oxford medical text, suffered a similar fate.

I lost the ability to run, walk, or stand without assistance, but the disease and its consequences did not prevent me from fathering two beautiful daughters. Why am I here? has become a consistent theme in my life. Consistent themes make it possible for people to become columnists for newspapers and for publications such as
Voices of Central Pennsylvania. So, what you are reading is the first in a series of monthly columns on the subject of having physical disabilities and being elderly here in Centre County.

I will not pretend that physical disabilities and old age are inherently fascinating subjects. However, one of the advantages of being a columnist is that I do not have to come to the point too quickly—as long as I get there. So for my readers, beginning
October, 2009 I plan to use my wiles to make me part of your life. I plan to start here at Addison Court, the 89-apartment complex in downtown State College, where at 3 a.m. nearly every day drunken students out of control (half a block from the police station) walk east in groups of 20 shrieking men and women who pause to urinate and vomit in our parking lot.

I plan to find out why the police do not interfere with drunken activity and how it makes Addison Court residents feel.

I can’t wait for you to meet my neighbors. A few weeks ago, Lillian (83), Audrey (80), Hilda (90), and I had a lively Corner Room breakfast talking about what it is like when most of one’s friends are dead or too-far-gone to remember the same old stories.

Addison Court residents, with the exception of those with physical and emotional disabilities, are 55 or older, live in rent-subsidized apartments, have little money, not enough to do, and most vote out of a sense of patriotic obligation.

From Addison Court, half a block north on Allen, is Webster’s Bookstore Café. Webster’s proprietor Elaine Meder-Wilgus surrounds herself with serious reformers who are not afraid to have fun. This column will discuss reform and fun from my distinct perspective. I am 62. I am a paraplegic. I have rotten teeth—17 cavities.

I have strong ideas about the importance of uniting with others such as myself because as Al Smith once said, “The only cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.”

In the November column, I will tell you why I came to State College, how much money I earn, and how I plan to survive financial disaster.  [October 2009]

Joel Solkoff is the author of The Politics of Food.