Meg Wolitzer and Me!

Who knew that I would find commonality with a well-known, accomplished novelist, Meg Wolitzer, You may wonder how this happened. It was not from her novels or an interview, but from listening to The Moth, True Stories Told Live on NPR. Having not heard the introduction, I missed who was telling the story, but the story caught my attention immediately. I stopped what I was doing, sat down and made listening to the radio my only undertaking. Her story was about her childhood, summer experiences at sleepover camp. Most sleepover camps, she explained, consisted of the all-important Color War and the sappy songs they sang, about how new friends were great and old friends were better and we all get along in all kinds of weather. I laughed, knowingly.

Then, one summer she went to a new camp and she loved it. Her fellow campers talked about such things as philosophy and important events and they shared their hearts and souls. Meg found herself more at home at this camp and she was most excited when she was on the camp's theater stage. As it happened, the acting instructor was a well-known actor who knew lots of well-known people and took her job very seriously. I think it was about this time in the story that I realized it was the author, Meg Wolitzer speaking. Meg loved the acting, but felt, no matter what she did, she could not please this acting teacher. Martha, one of her very good friends at camp, however, could and did please the acting teacher, a lot. Martha was one of those girls who was lovely to look at, wearing long flowing hair and even longer flowing hippie skirts. She would be the kind of girl who inspired sweet woodland critters gathering around her feet and a chirping bluebird perched upon her finger (picture scene: Lily Tomlin dressed as Snow White in the wonderful film, Nine to Five). Martha was pretty much what most of the girls wanted to be, and who most of the boys wanted to date. Meg, on the other hand, was well liked, but not for her looks, rather for being funny, sometimes outlandish and other times, really out there. The acting teacher never did warm to Meg, nor give her the encouragement and accolades she shed upon Martha. The good news is that all these years later, Martha and Meg are still the best of friends. The even better news is that as an adult, Meg is certain that what she most appreciates about herself now, are, among other things, the very same characteristics that the acting teacher dismissed back then.

Such was the story, more or less, that Meg Wolitzer told on the Moth Radio stage. Her voice sounded almost familiar. Her style was warm, self-effacing and funny. She reminded me a little of me. I also went to summer sleepover camps as a child.  Furthermore, I experienced both the more typical kind of camp, as well as the ones with a particular focus and a bit more serious, which was more than OK with me. Additionally, I had an experience where a professional acting teacher put me down as I tried to express my acting passions one summer at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in NYC, though I was a teenager, not a child, at the time.

Meg's story telling often made the listeners laugh and I’m pretty sure they were laughing  with her. She just sounded so normal, like a regular person, not like a famous novelist, whatever that means. I found myself thinking, that could be me talking about sleepover camp and what worked for me and what didn't; what made me feel good and what made me feel jealous and unsupported. I too could be telling a story, making people laugh, after-all, I do that sometimes and when they laugh, I feel good. Maybe now and then, they are laughing a bit at me, but also, (hopefully) they are laughing, mostly, with me. I related to and found commonality with Meg Wolitzer, the Moth storyteller and famous author. What caught me up was that she is this well-known and respected writer. I, on the other hand, am just a regular person and a wannabe writer. But then I thought, Meg Wolitzer is also just a person, a person who lives her life and does her job and maybe, just maybe, Meg Wolitzer is a little like me.


Lee Daniel's THE BUTLER

I just watched the movie, "The Butler". The way I see it, there are movies I like to recommend because they are good movies and I think my friends would enjoy them. Then there are movies that I recommend because, in my (humble) opinion, they are movies that everyone MUST SEE. These movies are not only good, but also, important. "Selma", "Lincoln" and "The Butler” are all mandatory viewing

“The Butler” tells the life story of Cecil Gaines. It opens in what I initially thought was a slave plantation because of the atrocious way the black cotton pickers were treated by the white owner, but upon googling it, I found the time was 1926 on a cotton plantation in Macon, Georgia and they were share croppers, which seemed to me to be just another name for slavery. Cecil Gaines, then a little boy, sees his father shot dead in the head because he was about to complain that his wife was raped just a few minutes before, by said plantation owner. As it happens the estate's caretaker and owner's grandmother, has in her own way, enough of a heart to take Cecil into the house and out of the life draining cotton fields and trains him how to be a house servant, which Cecil learns very well. He leaves the plantation when he is 16 (which meant leaving his mother behind, but he knew that she would want him to pursue a better life for himself, and so he does. Ultimately he gets recommended for a position in a hotel in Washington, D.C. and by the time Eisenhower is in the White House, Cecil Gaines finds his way there as a butler to the president. Meanwhile he met his wife and they have two sons.

The story proceeds as a study in contrast between himself as a butler and his older son who goes to Fisk College and becomes a part of the Civil Rights Movement, first as a follower of Martin Luther King and, after King’s death, as a member of the Black Panthers. The conflict that ensues between father and son is heartbreaking. Cecil is a witness to history through the presidential administrations of Dwight Eisenhower, JFK, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, who was the final president that Cecil Gaines serves, as he begins to feel different about this position he has had all these years. He is a witness to the history of his people, as well as a major part of the history. Ultimately, he and his wife, as well as his son who becomes a member of the US Congress, live to see a black president of the United States, Barack Obama. Never did the significance of the first African-American president seem so poignant as in the context of this movie.

“The Butler” was directed and produced by Lee Daniels, who is known for "Monsters Ball", "Precious" and recently the television series "Empire". It has a blockbuster cast, starting with Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, Oprah Winfrey as Gloria Gaines, Cecil's wife, David Oyelowo (plays MLK in Selma) as Louis Gaines, the elder son, Mariah Carey as Hattie Pearl, Cecil's mother, Terrence Howard as Howard, the Gaines' neighbor, Vanessa Redgrave as Annabeth Westfall, matron of the plantation, Cuba Gooding Jr. as head butler at the White House, Lenny Kravitz as a co-worker butler of Cecil's, Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. The full cast can be seen on “The Butler’s” Wikipedia site.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Butler.

Thank goodness for Netflix, since there are virtually no video (DVD) stores left. It is not on Netflix, but on their DVD rentals. However you get your hands on the movie, “The Butler”, get it and watch it. I suspect it will be viewed very differently by anyone born in the last 30+ years, as opposed to baby boomers, like myself, who lived through much of the time period being shown. It is important that everyone see this movie in its proper context. “The Butler” is a good movie. It’s an important movie, as well.


Magic Lamp and My Very Own Own Genie, Alissa

It's 4:12 PM Friday, April 10, 2015. When I awoke this morning I just sat on the edge of my bed with my eyes closed. I wanted nothing more than to sleep. So I found a place for myself lying down and stayed there until 2 PM, when I got up. I had breakfast and continued watching MASH episodes. The last was about a little boy who'd been wounded and the MASH unit couldn't find his parents or even the village he'd been from. Long story short, Trapper was going to adopt him. Meanwhile each of the main characters had their fair time interacting with him lovingly. The little boy was so cute, you could just eat him up. As might be expected, his Korean mother shows up near the end of the episode and takes the little boy with her. Mixed feelings were had by all, but especially by Trapper, who was heartsick, feeling like he had lost his adopted child, while he was also being happy that the boy was reunited with his mother. This story would make anyone teary-eyed, but it left me weeping. I thought about the grandchildren I wish for, desire, hope for and dream of, but may not have, or at least not before I am too old to appreciate them the way I want to.

Weeping also for my niece, Alissa who died in February, 2015. It's still so raw, tragic and sad.  I wrote a eulogy for Lissy and in it included an explanation about  a small silver painted pot she had given me for my 60th birthday, 3 years ago. It always reminded me of a Genie's Lamp. I think Lissy would have liked that connotation.The pot has a removable top and around it's rim, the words DREAM, HOPE, WISH, and DESIRE. Inside the pot were several little scrolls of paper neatly tied with little silver ribbons, on which I was to write a wish, desire, dream and hope. And so I did back in October, 2011. 

Today I opened it up and took out all of the little scrolled and tied papers, unrolled them and on 3, wrote a new hope, wish and desire. On one I wrote, that I HOPE, despite my cynicism, there is in fact, an afterlife and that Alissa is finally at peace, tranquility and maybe even bliss. I further hope that all four of her grandparents souls have their arms wrapped lovingly around her. On another I wrote, I WISH that I will have grandchildren from Rachel and Jeremy whom I can read too, play with, love and cherish, before I get too old to appreciate it. On the third, I wrote a more selfish DESIRE, that I will always have enough money when I need it. There were a few of the originals that continued to be relevant and yet unfulfilled, so I just left them tied and in the magic pot. Magic lamps are the natural habitats of genies, who are magical creatures that grant wishes to people, when the lamp is rubbed and the genie comes out. I have my own personal magic lamp and my very own genie. 



Sherril Smoger-Kessous, of Bloomfield, NJ, went to Israel at the impressionable age of 16, with a teen-tour called The  National Bar Mitzvah Club. (National Bar Mitzvah Club  = boys and girls age 16 .
7 week program enables Bar and Bat Mitzvah boys and girls to accumulate funds and prepare them-selves to participate in a specially designed trip at age 16. Includes lectures, trips to archeological and biblical sites, and a brief European stopover. Members of the Bar Mitzvah Club are oriented for the trip during the three year period through educational materials. Kashruth and Sabbath observed. Fee $850.). 

The trip was a pivotal exerience in my life, in that Israel made a deep impression on me, which would stay with me for the rest of my life, and, as importantly, Eileen, a fellow traveller from San Antonio, Texas, also made a deep impression on me, as throughout that summer, we developed  a profound friendship. Eileen and I remained friends for a few years beyond the summer of 1968, but unfortunately lost touch sometime during our college years. I made some attempts through the years to find Eileen, but was not successful. Then in the beginning of the year, 2015, 47 years after we met, a connection was finally made, albeit, in a round-about way, via Facebook. 

This blog post is a tribute of sorts to that summer of '68 in Israel, the friendship that developed and the following year when we reunited at each others houses. Unfortunately, I cannot find the pictures from my visit to Texas. Fortunately, I do have them from when Eileen came to visit me in Bloomfield during the winter of 1968 or '69.  She had the good fortune to come when we had a major snow storm. We had a reunion party with some of our trip-mates from NJ. And we had more time to bond as friends. 

Eileen and Barbara Woolf. friend, from the trip.

Then in the summer of '69, I went to visit Eileen in San Antonio. It was a momentous summer all around. Not only did we have another wonderful get-together, but also Apollo 11 was launched and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their famous walk on the moon on July 20, 1969, "One small step for man. One giant step for mankind". 

Then from August 15-18, 1969, the most famous rock concert and festival, Woodstock, took place on Max Yasgur's 600 acre dairy farm in the town of Bethel, NY. 

Eileen and I did not get to Woodstock, but I believe we did
watch the moon-walk together. We also travelled to Dallas to see another kid from our trip and to Houston. 

So, without further ado, here are the photos from The National Bar Mitzvah Tour, summer of 1968...

We stayed in what had been a hospital in Jerusalem, called, Bikur Cholim, but for some reason, I remember calling it Ze'ev. The only connection to that name that I could find was that the architect of some bronze doors in the hospital was Zeev Raban. What I cannot presently figure out is why we were able to stay there because as far as I could find, the hopital functioned as one throughout it's long history. In any case, we would return there as a home base after each "tiyul" (trip) we made. 

Our home base in Jerusalem:  Bikur Cholim Hospital, or as I remember it, Ze'ev Hospital. . 

Eileen in black Bedoin dress, Sherril in white at Ze'ev Hospital, our home base in Jerusalem. . The dresses and the pipes purchased in the "Old City" of Jerusalem, the Arab Quarter.

Mike with flowers in his hair, next to sign: "Do Not Smoke the Grass". 

Yerushalayim Shel Zehav: Jerusalem of Gold.

Tiyul in the Negev Desert

Eileen smack in the middle. Sherril sitting in first row on the ground, 2nd from right. I remeber Bunny and Stuart sitting on either side of me,

New Jersey Group planting trees for Jewish National Fund 

He is either smoking a joint or blowing on a harmonica. You' choose. 

Our Fearless Leaders

Peter, Paul and Mary? No, Randy, Mike and Eileen.

Sherril leaving Zev and Israel, thus the solemn expression.

Trip ended with a few days in Paris, not too shabby!.

Airport in Paris. On our way home.

Now for Eileen's visit to my house in Bloomfield the winter after our trip to Israel. I remember that visit as being So Much Fun!

Eileen and me preparing to play outside in the winter wonderland..

My brother, Michael and Eileen and Snowman Masterpiece

Not sure why I am hugging the snowman, but I think I still have those gloves.

"My tree" "No, My tree!" May the best girl win.

Snowball Fight on left and Snowman is protecting my father's renault on right.

Having fun yet?

Eileen making a Snow-Angel.

Sherril kicking up a storm.

Back inside the cozy house at 987 Broad Street, Bloomfield, NJ, where you can find Sherril and Eileen being playful. 

Me making fish face!

Eileen making fish face!
Eileen faking sleep. 

Sherril faking sleep. 

                 Take note of my bedroom ceiling. Pretty cool, ay? Eileen seems to be contemplating it.

Looks like we are about to go out to dinner with my family.

 Eileen with Jo-Ann, my sister. 

A girl from Texas can't be too far from her 10 gallon hat!

 Down time.

Sisters! Sisters! Never were there such devoted sisters!

Dressed to the T's, Eileen and Me.

Deep in conversation. Note the white princess phone on the table. 

Eileen and I made decoupage pocketbooks. They were so cool. It probably went with all the other stuff up in the attic when my mother moved out of the house. ):

Note the guitar case next to me. I still have that Gibson guitar and same case 47 years hence!

Coy AND Playful.

So sweet!

We had a small reunion with a few kids from the National Bar Mitzvah club and a few friends of mine. 

Jeff Friedman (laughing next to Eileen), a friend of mine. Then Mitch from the trip and the guy on the other side of Eileen, may have been from the trip and the blond guy was a friend of Jeff's. 

Those were the days when playing TWISTER was all the rage and play it we did. 

 FUN! FUN! FUN! till my daddy took my T-bird away. 

Then came the sad day that Eileen had to go home. 

         A trip, a visit and a friend I will always remember!