At the Women's march

At the Women's march
All Lives Matter

Never Again

Never Again
We Won't Go Back

Friday, December 1, 2017

SEX AND LOVE, RAW AND REWARDING


The literary world has just spread out an erudite welcome mat for an overnight success – one that took only fifty years to arrive. Scary Old Sex, Arlene Heyman’s first published book, of seven short stories, has been riding a wave of ecstatic reviews for the past year.  A remarkable feat, since aside from a prize-winning story and a contest-winning novella years ago, Dr. Heyman, a 74-year-old Manhattan psychiatrist/psychoanalyst, had published practically nothing for years. But she kept writing, and these stories are notable -- for their pungent, precise, and often funny literary style, and also for their boldness – in looking at sex, death, bodily functions, and “forbidden” fantasies that betray their author’s day job.

During sickness and old age, her characters keep having sex, even when, as one 65-year-old wife puts it, between the Vagifem and the Viagra, the K-Y, and the scheduling, “making love was like running a war: plans had to be drawn up, equipment in tiptop condition, troops deployed…” And sometimes they need taboo fantasies to climax – like imagining sex with a son. One character quotes the famous line “Nothing human is alien to me,” and that’s true for this author too.

The most talked-about story in the book may be the one based on the author’s two-year affair when she was a 19-year-old undergraduate and he was her 47-year-old professor, the author Bernard Malamud.  This story was written years after the affair had ended but while the friendship between the two was still strong, as it was until his death years later.

Meanwhile, Dr. Heyman married, was widowed, and is now in a second marriage. She has clearly drawn inspiration from her own life, perhaps in such stories as the exquisite “Dancing,” in which the wife of a husband dying from leukemia climbs onto his hospital bed, where they make love and weep. (Dr. Heyman’s own husband died of leukemia.) But always, she says, her stories are fiction.
Who are her characters? I know them, and in some ways I am, and was, them. I dare any non-observant Jewish upper-middle-class urbanite to read this book and not find yourself somewhere.  
But none of the characters is modeled on a patient. Dr. Heyman stresses that none of her patients were her inspirations: “Patients come to me for help, not to become characters in stories.”

Arlene Heyman and her characters are so New York that it’s hard to believe she didn’t spring full-blown in her expansive Upper West Side apartment in its imposing turn-of-the-century building. However, she was born and grew up in Newark. She is an easy person to interview -- charming, unaffected, and attractive. And a wicked joke-teller.  Saul Bellow said that you know everything about a person if you know their favorite joke. The three Arlene Heyman told me revealed that she’s feminist, anti-Nazi, and has a bawdy sense of humor – all of which comes across in her book.

She majored in English at Bennington, earned an MFA, kept writing, and taught English. So when and why did she turn toward medicine? “I was getting anxious about how I would earn a living,” she said. “And I thought that if, as a Jew, I would ever get thrown out of this country, I could always take my knowledge of the human body elsewhere, since bodies are the same all over the world.”

Capturing a personality with just a few words is something the author shines at, like her description of a second husband too timid “to ask for all dark meat from Chirping Chicken.” How does her own husband feel about these second husbands coming up short? “Sometimes he feels exposed, but I tell him, it’s fiction. And first husbands are dead. You can idealize them because you don’t see them in glaring sunlight. Second husbands are alive: as wonderful as they may be, they’re imperfect, as we all are.”

But why the title? Not all these stories involve old people, not all focus on sex, and what’s scary? Heyman explains: “Everyone wants to be connected with another. ‘Scary’ has to do with this vulnerability, which may be for some people at its most alarming with sex; and ‘old’ also means something fundamental in life.” Facing intimacy or fearing it, her characters get angry, back away, express their love through the myriad trials life brings them. And sex often helps.

Arlene Heyman’s language paints vibrant word pictures, as when she writes about an assisted living facility, with “mostly elderly women, but here and there a few men are sprinkled around like pepper on a salad.” Or a midlife wife’s “still glorious bushy bush.” An old wife appreciating her husband’s “aged flesh … nourishes an astonishing variety of wild mushrooms – beautiful, if you have an eye.” A doctor’s thoughts about his mother tell all about her: “She would never have stood for his father’s having any pleasure.”

The last story has a singularity. Husband and wife are unnamed. The wife kvetches, the husband whines, their unending complaints come from deep places during this last night of their cruise in and out of German villages that once had thriving Jewish populations but whose guides now give “Jew-clean” talks.

The author has compassion for all her characters.  And seemingly for us, her readers.  I close the book thinking that she must be a wonderful analyst.


Monday, January 23, 2017

THE WOMEN’S MARCH – JANUARY 21, 2017

A wire clothes hanger bearing the stark message "Never Again." The woman marching next to me saw this sign and confided that her mother had nearly bled to death after the self-administered abortion of what would have been her fourth child, one she could not take care of.

"My Life Matters." A heart-wrenching sign carried by a small African-American boy riding on his father's shoulders. His message is more important than ever in the months and years ahead.

"Putin's Poodle." Donald Trump's head on the body of a dog. What does the election of this man mean to the independence of our nation?

The signs held aloft during the marches in cities and towns across the United States and in nations around the globe were many and creative and inspiring -- and emphasized why we -- millions of us -- were marching on the day after the inauguration of the least qualified person ever elected president of our country.

The Women’s Marches the day after the inauguration of Donald John Trump as President of the United States exceeded expectations in every way, in cities and towns across the United States and in nations whose citizens feared not only for our government but for theirs and for the world. Many more thousands of people took part than anyone had estimated (2.9 million in the U.S. alone), and more goodwill was shown, with one police officer in Manhattan saying on television there was not a single problem for all the hours that people were on the streets – other than handling traffic. Civility pervaded the streets throughout the day, even when the march was at a standstill because so many people joined from so many different directions. 

The streets were filled for hours with citizens — and non-citizens — of every ethnicity, every color, every age from infants in arms to ancients in wheelchairs (and yes, many grandmothers and grandchildren). Many wore the ubiquitous “pussy hats” – hand-knitted pink hats with little ears — to hold up to ridicule President Donald Trump’s vulgar videotaped acknowledgment of his own sexual predations. A large contingent of men joined in the continual chanting with “Her body, her choice!”

My group, under the aegis of Eleanor’s Legacy (an organization inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt and dedicated to expanding the role of pro-choice women in government) met at 10 a.m. at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza at the United Nations. Although it was impossible to hear the speakers during the two and a half hours we stood there before we were able to begin marching, they must have said good things because there were periodic shouts and waves. Despite impatient chants of “Let Us March!” there was no pushing or elbowing, and people were unfailingly courteous in stepping aside to let small groups of friends and family stay together. 

The minute I had heard that women would be marching to protest the ascension to the presidency of the most unqualified person in our country’s history, I knew I wanted to be part of it. Why? When people asked me what good it would do, I could have quoted Mahatma Gandhi when he said “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it’s very important that you do it.” 

Or I could have quoted Harry Belafonte who called the street march “one of the great weapons of a democracy.” I wanted to be part of a global statement to let this administration know how many worldwide were shocked by what this singularly unqualified president has been saying, the people he has been appointing to his cabinet, and what this council of governing know-nothings plan to do. 
I had not marched for a long time – since demonstrating for civil rights in Chicago, pro-choice in Washington, anti-war on Long Island, and probably others I can’t remember. Did these marches bring about the Voting Rights Law and the Fair Housing Law, the Roe v. Wade decision, and other changes in government? Yes, they moved public opinion and reached Congress and the Supreme Court and eventually led to changes in the laws of our land. 

So what will be the real impact of this march? Nothing unless people involved take it further. And this we must do. We must build democratic structures at local levels in red, blue and purple states. We must engage our young people and inspire them to become leaders. We must educate ourselves and be alert to any encroachment of power upon the rights of the people. We must support the organizations carrying on this work – Planned Parenthood, The American Civil Liberties Union, the National Coalition against Censorship, others fighting for a better world – with our efforts and our pocketbooks.


We need imagination, effort, and knowledge to do this. Donald Trump talked about returning the government to the people. We the people must do this ourselves for ourselves and our fellow citizens, since his promises as put into practice so far will take it away from us. What can we do? We need to organize at local levels, we need to fight the gerrymandering that has paralyzed forces for progress, we need to urge reformers to run for school boards, for city councils, for judgeships, for elective offices at the most basic levels. Only then will our country be able to reap the democratic rewards for the many, not the few.