Friday, April 27, 2012

In an exhilarating week, a new identity

In Lower 9th,  a roof is finished
But house has far to go
“Letterboxing” in Northampton, Mass. with grandkids and whipping up their favorite “cloud pancakes.”  Picnicking at the spectacular Three Sisters Sanctuary.
Days building roofs and hauling compost in New Orleans’ devastated Lower Ninth ward. Nights with Cajun feasting and drinking.  
In my former life-of-career, would I have immersed myself in so many jam-packed adventures?
Would I have used my precious Vacation Time this way?
Briefly, this is  my week: On Tuesday I drive five hours so a daughter can fly to an out-of-town meeting while her kids are on school break. Hike a couple days with the kids, luring them on with letterboxing hunts. (The idea is to find hidden plastic boxes using online clues, then mark a journal with a stamp found in each box.) Drive home Friday, collapse for a day.

At 7.30 a.m. Sunday, flight to New Orleans. In 30 years, I have rarely gone to any of my husband’s professional meetings, never wanting to waste the VT on a not-really-vacation. And I have no interest in doing the “spouse” thing as I imagine it – tours, lonely lunches, museums, or hanging with other spouses. This time around, I have no intention of being the “spouse” either. I will have a mission and identity as a volunteer with
Darren and Emily at headquarters

I have no idea of the surprises awaiting me. The instructions say to show up at 7.45 a.m. with work clothes, gloves, bug spray, hat, water bottle and be set to work til 5.  Over two amazing days, I get to know eager young volunteers from Europe, including two civil engineering students from Paris, working to rebuild this community devastated by Katrina and still needing help 6 ½ years later. I spend a day with a local guy named Darren McKinney, who despite a couple screws in his legs still runs up and down ladders, directing a crew of volunteers to re-roof homes. I meet Summer Moore, a brilliant vagabond, who has lived in a half dozen states in the last two years and runs the group’s organic farm. Under her command, I burn off 1,000 calories in the fields.

That's me, digging weeds
 And overseeing it all is Emily Stieber, a cheerful young woman with red ringlets who runs the effort like a Swiss train.
One day, I cut asphalt shingles and carry them up a tall ladder to the roof, dismantle scaffolding, lug long boards into a pick up truck, mix concrete, help create a wall.
The next day, I pull weeds, shovel trenches, dig planting beds, fill a pick-up truck with compost,  plant cow peas, basil, marigolds, and petunias and water dozens of plants, some growing inside old tires serving as raised beds. Mostly, I get to know Noelle Bakri, lately of West Philadelphia, who supports herself working weekends in the French Quarter,  performing with flaming hula hoops and eating fire. She's got time, so she's out in the fields volunteering, too.
Noelle Bakri
 For someone who no longer can claim a work title, for two days I bask in a new identity.  Needing to find the right bus in a dicey neighborhood, I say, “I’m volunteering in the Lower Ninth” and everyone is eager to point me the right way. When after an exhausting day, I return downtown and unwittingly jump a long line of tourists to grab a seat at the Acme Oyster House bar, the manager forgives me after I explain,  “I was volunteering in the Lower Ninth.”

Of course, this being New Orleans, I make sure my husband is free for two special nights. For one we take the trolley out to Upperline, a charming rowhouse-type restaurant with unbelievable roast duck and drum fish, a recommendation of Philadelphia Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan.  The other is a Frog's Leap wine tasting at Le Meritage, where we sit at long white-clothed tables, with five wine glasses before us and  indulge in, among other delicacies, frogs legs (another adventure!) and a 1990 Cabernet Sauvignon.

Betsie Gambel at Frog's Leap tasting

And get to meet more people we would never otherwise have known, including Betsie Gambel, who because of a complicated connection to Valley Forge Military Academy now mail orders her coffee from Wawa. And Nancy Campa, a Charlottesville, Va. artist who once donated 10 knitting machines to poor women in West Virginia.

Could my life be fuller?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Thinking the unthinkable--and even doing it!

Fourteen women sit crowded around my dining room table, trying to put into words the fears and the excitement, the relishing and the regrets, the risks and the rewards of leaving lifelong careers.
We are the first big generation of women to burnish our identities through our jobs; to juggle and struggle up the ladder yet still find ways to raise children.  We make (or made) our own money and spend it how we want to. We may have partners and make compromises for family, but we also love our work-world lives.
Now many of us are seeking (or will soon be seeking) new paths.
A child psychologist who still works full time worries how her day will be structured: "I don't think I could plan what I would do every day."
An ex-therapist rattles off all the things she now does: book club, stock club, a non-profit dining group that raises money for various organizations, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. And then says, "I still do feel defensive that I don't bring in an income, which is why I went through the list of all the other things I do."
Others --perhaps a few years deeper into the process --have found ways of letting go of the guilt and the need for a business card.
"It's like someone sprinkled Miracle Grow on me and I started to bloom," says a woman who pioneered a breast-feeding initiative at Pennsylvania Hospital and for many years ran it. It took her a few years but she feels she’s arrived at a different place – one of open doors and adventures, a place where she feels “more personally accomplished.”  One day, she's trekking to an eco-farm in Costa Rica. The next, she's doing a "Tuesday with Morrie," helping a dying friend write his life story. 
“Think of yourself as a goldfish,” she counsels the group.  “We’re fighting to swim upstream to be whatever we once were. What if we turned around and flowed downstream?”
A woman who until three years ago worked in the Philadelphia schools admits that "all the things I worried about haven't happened. I don't feel I have to define myself by my career; I find things within myself."
Another ex-teacher says, "I liked my job and was good at it. Now I’m good at other things. I don't know if I'm making a great contribution but my family is proud of me."
But for myself, and many of the others – especially those still working --  there is confusion.  I’m six months out now and find myself dashing from one thing to another, imposing on myself the adrenaline-rushing deadlines of my journalism job, still bent on proving myself-- to no one but myself.
A former non-profit executive who would like to be an interim executive director but hasn't landed the job wonders whether she should shift her mindset. She feels like this is her identity, but without a job, is it her identity? "Life is fine, except I don't know what I'm doing." 
Another woman, who had a child late in life, remains busy teaching Russian  and volunteering but it is her part time job that is her calling card. "I can go to any party and say, 'I teach communications at the Wharton School.' "
And so the stories went, as each explained why she had come to this meeting, organized around the book,  Project Renewment, which has sprouted groups around the country like this one.  (See my previous blog on Helen Dennis, who together with with Bernice Bratter,  launched the idea.)
For those still deep in careers, there is more fear than excitement about leaving the job. (I sweated the decision for 10 years).
A woman who works full time counseling college students, says she feels like she's "had her head in the sand," not wanting to think about the future. "I'm in real denial about my age."
A Penn scientist isn't sure a needed grant will be approved. "If I'm laid off, it wouldn't be terrible. If I stay, it's ok, too." But ringing in her ears is her late father's disappointment in retirement: "It's really hard if the most important thing in your life is to play golf or tennis," he would say. As a single woman, she also worries about being alone, jobless. "I don't have someone to travel with or pay the bills." On the other hand, she's a Reiki (energy healing) Master and knows "that's an avenue I want to go down." 
A speech pathologist is grappling with The Decision as well. "Every day I change my mind. I have mixed feelings about who I am as a professional. I've reached a level of expertise in my field and love what I do." Among her worries: control over her own money, a subject on which she and her husband don't see eye to eye. "He says, 'You can retire, but you'll have to cut back [on spending].  He's good but the money thing makes me nervous."
A retired business woman: "What I miss most is the paycheck. Having the earning power makes me feel more accomplished and successful." At the same time, she says, "I feel entitled not to work and feel lucky I don't have to. Working out of choice rather than out of need is a huge difference.”
Curious that so much of our egos are tied up in the money. Frankly, this was not an impoverished group. Most of the 14 women have savings, pensions, are getting Social Security or expect to and have spouses with incomes.
They recognize that "there's a whole world of people working to pay the rent and put food on the table. How lucky we are to be able to choose."
Hovering over or under the table were the ghosts of our mothers, still whispering in our ears. All these years later, some of the women are still working desperately to NOT be their mothers. The notion of reversing course, stepping out of careers and coming home to cook and clean feels antithetical to their entire lives. 
And then there’s guilt, says a woman with no thought of leaving her big job running a large Y in Northeast Philadelphia.
"Nagging in the back of my mind are my mother's words, "No idle hands... how will you repair the world going forward?"

Friday, April 13, 2012

What do you call "work?"

So determined was I to succeed at my journalism career, that I worked  the day before giving birth to my first child and was back at my desk three weeks later.  Stay home? No way -- in large part because being home was too much work.  
So I had to laugh about the brouhaha over Hilary Rosen’s comment that Ann Romney, mother of 5, had “never worked a day in her life.”  Tough as it was being a “working mother,” juggling a reporting/editing career and three kids, what I’m doing now is harder. And certainly less rewarding, both financially and psychologically.
Since I haven’t yet figured out my “next great thing,” as spring fever struck,  I’ve been pouring my energy into the house that I’ve neglected for the last 30 years.
Take my day yesterday: I discovered that a glass window in my basement had fallen out. Plus,  there’s a wire screen covering the window, making it impossible to reach from the outside. Somehow, after pulling the glass inward, washing it, scraping off old paint, and gathering supplies to try to caulk it back in from the inside (likely impossible), I dropped the glass. Oh, well.
Instead, I tackled my deck, which got filthy over the winter despite an oil-based sealant.  After an hour, I took a break and turned to the garden, as long as I was still wearing gloves from the deck job, pulling crab grass by hand.
Then I turned to the key problem. The key was spinning around in our double cylinder lock. I’d taken it apart once before, after it broke, and discovered that it had been installed slightly off center, putting torque on the key. Try holding both sides of a double cylinder lock so it doesn't fall off the door, while unscrewing screws, then lining up tiny pins through a dark hole you can’t see into. (I know a lot of you have tried this). That took up another hour.
Did I have lunch?  Did I get to gossip around the water cooler? Did a colleague express appreciation for a good idea I’d come up with ?
When my husband came home from work that night, I insisted he look at the marvel of my key repair (even if the yard was still weedy, the glass still missing, and the deck still pockmarked.)
“Tell me what a great job I did!” I begged.  

Monday, April 9, 2012

Is the WSJ following me?

Headline today in the Wall St. Journal:  "He wants to retire.. but she doesn't."
I wrote recently about Jack Malinowski and Deb Frazer, who seem to be negotiating this situation a lot better than the folks in the journal piece, most of whom didn't even want to be interviewed by the reporter. Even a friend wouldn't call her back. And, it turns out, there are "retirement coaches" who sound more like shrinks than financial planners.  Men retiring before their wives fear they'll be seen as "house husbands." Women who retire earlier like having the run of the house and don't particularly want their spouses rattling around. One couple had an issue over who made lunch (they ended up making their own lunches). A tip from the coach: get clarity on how much time you want to spend together -- and not together. And what you're retiring to, as opposed to what you're retiring from.

Monday, April 2, 2012

A miraculous escape; lessons to heed

Kurt Herman, age 9, arriving with a kindertransport to NYC
So much about Kurt Herman reminds me of my father. Like my father, he was born in Vienna. Like my father, he has a twinkle in his eye and brings humor to the darkest things. But mostly, his story of escape from the Nazis, thanks to luck and perseverance, is similar to the one I heard growing up. 
I learned of Kurt at the showing of a new documentary, ToSave a Life. That movie, which debuted recently at Philadelphia’s Jewish Film Festival, tells the story of a Philadelphia couple who in 1939 got it into their heads that they could save 50 Jewish children from Vienna.
With much drama and against all odds, including a scary elevator incident with top-ranking Nazis, the couple brought those 50 children – 25 girls and 25 boys – to safety in Philadelphia.
It was the largest “kindertransport” to the United States, according to its producer, Steven Pressman.
Kurt Herman, then 9 years old, was one of those children.
Interviewed for the film, he attended the premier, cracking jokes on stage afterward.
I wanted to know his story, and what lessons in life he was passing on to his children and grandchildren. My late father had underscored the importance of having a career you can take with you and always having a valid passport. He also taught us that luck doesn’t just happen. You have to seize it.
That is how he survived.
My interview with Kurt took place, fittingly, in the small Holocaust Awareness Museum  housed at the bustling Klein branch of the Jewish Community Center in Northeast Philadelphia. Kurt’s Nazi-stamped visa, which allowed him to leave Austria, sat in a glass case.
“It’s an experience you don’t forget,” said Kurt,  now 82, of the life-changing bombshell that dropped when he was eight years old. That bombshell was Hitler’s annexation of Austria on March 12, 1938.  One week, he was in a classroom filled with friends of all religions. The next week, the Jewish kids were seated separately, Hitler’s picture was on the wall, and all the other children were wearing swastikas.
 “They wouldn’t play with me anymore,” Herman remembered. “I asked my father, what did I do? His answer. You were born Jewish.”
As Kurt said at the movie showing, the problem for the Jews in Germany and Austria in the early years wasn’t getting out. The Nazis were happy to cleanse the country of  Jews who could leave. The problem was “getting in.” Every country had quotas and visas were scarce.
Kurt remembers the Nazis raiding their apartment, looking for valuables, antiques  -- and his father. Only on the third sweep was his father home, successfully hiding under clothes on top of a closet.
Then came Kristallnacht,  Nov. 9, 1938, the rampage of Jewish stores and synagogues. “I saw our synagogue burning,” Herman said. "There was a big fire as they burned the books and torahs.”
For years, his family of eight – his parents, grandparents,  aunt and uncle, cousin and himself -- had tried to leave Austria, applying for visas to other countries.  Finally, in 1939, an uncle left for Shanghai. Soon after, his father and parents – who had Polish passports – were able to board a ship to Cuba. (It was turned back, dumping them in France as displaced persons, with their whereabouts unknown by their family.) Then, Kurt’s mother learned about Philadelphia lawyer Gilbert Kraus and his wife Eleanor, who had arrived in Vienna to rescue the 50 children.
Because of strict quotas, the U.S. State Department had initially turned down the couple's request for visas for the children, but they convinced the government to give the children visas that had been issued but not used, perhaps because the recipients had gone elsewhere or died.
“All I knew was I was one of the kids interviewed,” Kurt said. “On May 10, 1939, a notice came that by some stroke of luck, I was picked and I had to be at the Vienna train station on the 22nd of May with two suitcases. I remember that the parents weren’t allowed to cry or wave,” he said.
In Berlin, the Krauses faced one last hurdle: obtaining the German passports that would allow the children to leave. In one of the movie's most dramatic moments, based on Eleanor's memoir, the Krauses arrived at their hotel, only to find it surrounded by security. Earlier that day, German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and his Italian counterpart had signed a military alliance, and the Nazi and the Fascist got into the elevator with the Krauses. Eleanor trembled all the way to her floor.
After landing in New York on June 3, 1939, all the children were taken to a summer camp in Collegeville, PA. owned by B'rith Sholom, sponsors of this journey. To his amazement that fall, Kurt joined an Allentown family “with a maid and butler,”  in  a house that is now home to the president of Muhlenberg College.
With 1939 photo of his arrival in NY
His mother got out in early 1940 -- the only person to get off a waiting list for the last boat the Germans let sail out of Genoa to New York. Just before the Nazis invaded France, Kurt’s father also escaped, as did his aunt and cousin. His grandparents perished in concentration camps.
Kurt has been telling his story for years now to schools, synagogues, anyone who will listen.“I didn’t give any speeches until Schinder’s List,” he said. “I would have talked but no one asked me.” 
He has urged his eight grandchildren to get good educations and to "be on the alert and remember what happened to us."
He also counsels them that "when you're in a pinch, you better rely on... your family. Friends are great... I had friends, too, and like that," he said snapping his fingers, "I was a dirty Jew."
My father learned a harsher lesson in the year he spent in Dachau and Buchenwald before the American visa he had applied for in 1932 came through. "Civilization is only skin deep," he would tell us. "Beneath the surface people are animals."
My father arrived in New York on May 16, 1939, just 18 days before Kurt.
It was none too soon for both of them.

So, what was the advice your grandparents were determined to share with you?