The Only Common Sense Solution to America’s Gun Problem

CoverStory-Drooker-Shopping-Days-879x1200-1449243698

The New Yorker, December 14 (art by Eric Drooker)

“Une vie ne vaut rien, mais rien ne vaut une vie.”
“A life has no value, but nothing is as valuable as a life.”

Thus wrote Andre Malraux, the great novelist, in 1933. In the United States, Malraux is best remembered as the French minister of culture who fell in love with Jacqueline Kennedy and loaned her France’s Mona Lisa in December 1962.

Lately some members of our human family have ignored both the sixth commandment and other ethical considerations, going on senseless, murderous rampages that have become all too common to read about in the news.

Some Americans’ response to this senseless slaughter is to support the ready availability of guns. Indeed, as the cover art of the December 14 issue of the The New Yorker of illustrates, buying a gun is becoming as easy as buying a dozen eggs. Personally I was shocked to see the display of guns at Willey’s Sports Center in Ellsworth, Maine where I buy some of my clothing. 

You will not find me buying a gun, even though I, like anyone else, am moderately afraid of being attacked by robbers, terrorists, drug users, or psychotics. Guns are meant to kill, and I, like most normal people, am horrified by the thought of killing one of my fellow humans.

I also know that being armed would be of little use for me. I would be unable to pull the trigger. If provoked, my assailant would strike first, disarm me, and he or she might harm me with my own weapon. This personal assessment is corroborated by science: many studies indicate that few people use guns for self-defense, and that it is ineffective when they do.

The United States has more guns per capita than any other country. As a matter of fact, at 310 million firearms and counting, this country has more guns than people. Expressed differently, 32 percent of all households, and 22.4 percent of all individuals, own guns. (Statistics from NORC at the University of Chicago.)

And firearms cause upward of 30,000 deaths annually.

The gun lobby stresses that the Constitution of the U.S. guarantees citizens the right to bear arms—though expert say that our founding fathers intended to grant that right to the states’ militias. I doubt that the patriarchs wanted to equip thirty percent of the population with small arsenals. According to Gallup, 29% of gun owners possess five or more guns—entirely too many for the rest of us to feel safe!

Let us imagine that the Constitution had granted citizens the right to drink and drive, regardless of the consequences. In 1980, a mother grieving over the needless death of her 13-year-old daughter founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). By 2014 the organization had been able to reduce the highway slaughter caused by drunk drivers from 25,000 annually to 10,000. The measures it took to achieve this 60% drop in no way impaired the nation’s ability to enjoy wine, whiskey, beer or other alcoholic beverages.

Like the majority of the American people I am in favor of reducing this domestic arsenal, but for the time being I would settle for more modest measures. Increasing background checks associated with the sale of firearms, eliminating unlicensed gun dealers, or not providing people on terrorism watch lists with licenses would not interfere with the joy of hunting or clay-pigeon shooting. (Nor, sadly, would it realistically have much of an impact on gun-related deaths in situations like suicide or domestic violence.)

But background checks may keep some guns out of the hands of child-murderers, religious fanatics or people who are obviously unwell. It has nothing to do with freedom; it is simply common sense. It boggles my mind why the National Rifle Association (NRA) or anyone else would object.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Farewell to Frank Hatch

FullSizeRender

My son David (left) and Frank Hatch (right)

On Sunday, January 10th, my computer screen flashed. Caring Bridges, a site that provides health news to family and friends, let me know that Frank had died. I had spoken to Frank a few weeks earlier on his birthday. He had told me that it would be his last. I did not want to believe him, since we had expected his death during the entire 27 years of our friendship—but unfortunately he was right.

Frank and I bonded over pumpkin soup during the first decade AIDS was with us. I was spending time with David, my son, and my home-cooked meals were a welcome event for him and his hungry friends, or “The Seven Sisters,” as they liked to call themselves. Of these, three were infected with HIV, and four were not. Together we faced a very uncertain future.

Frank was very special. Whenever I think of him I hear his laughter. A seductive mix of charm, love, anger, black humor, happiness, sharp wit, daring, and bitterness animated him.

Frank was particularly pleased with my home-cooked meals. He had lost his own beautiful mom when he was seventeen and in time he half-jokingly became my adopted son. We rarely forgot each other’s birthdays and marked these with gifts. For years my drawers were perfumed with potpourri he sent from California to Brooklyn.

Frank lent support when David was fighting for his life at Mount Zion Medical Center in San Francisco. I’ll never forget a respite walk we took near the Cliff House. Frank and I imagined that we had fallen into the churning sea and were trying to save ourselves. For a short while we were so engaged in our game that we forgot our worries. After David’s death I packed up my pots, which had been in his apartment, but symbolically stored the best and biggest with Frank.

I kept up with the boys and helped Frank deal with his ups and down. The ups included his friends and family, his swimming, his involvement with Buddhism, his rafting and the new community he discovered through the sport, and the teaching he did about AIDS. His downs included dealing with real and imagined slights, fearing death, and increasingly managing AIDS and cancer.

His home in Sausalito provided him with shelter. Some ten years ago, after he had passed through a severe medical crisis, I visited him there. Frank told me the following story:

The man was confined to his room; he was battling AIDS. His only distraction, during the weeks that his life hovered between life and death, was his flower-filled balcony, bathed in California sunshine.

His window boxes were overflowing with petunias, blue lobelia and red impatiens. One plant had died. He had pulled it out and was about to replace it. As he approached, shovel in hand, he noticed a morning dove. When he started digging up the black dirt, the bird dive-bombed his head. He retreated, wondering. He tried again. A second dove attacked him. He withdrew once more and watched.

Soon the two doves, ignoring him, filled the small depression with sticks. By the next morning the birds had built a nest. The morning after that there was one egg, then another, finally there were three eggs.

The female sat on her nest, unperturbed by the man who continued to water his plants. The eggs hatched. Three featherless chicks craned their necks, accepting food proffered by the older doves. Soon the fledglings flapped their immature wings. Finally one day they hopped to the edge of the nest, and flew off.

The man recovered. Was it the new drugs that keep the deadly AIDS virus at bay, or had the morning doves renewed his life?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Christmas Windows in New York Never Disappoint

P1000459

To momentarily forget the massacres in Paris and San Bernardino, the insane arsenals amassed by my fellow citizens, the irresponsible rhetoric of those who spend billions in their bid to become the president of the U.S.A…. I took myself to midtown Manhattan to view the Christmas windows.

As always the stores’ extravaganzas were magical.

What flight of fancy and craftsmanship we poor benighted humans are capable of! I started my exploration of the windows with Lord and Taylor. Their theme, “Favorite Things,” stressed carbs and I vicariously indulged in the displays illustrating a patisserie, stacked with cream-filled cakes, and a sweet shop filled with French macarons and overgrown cupcakes. I was tempted to nibble on the fence of the store’s giant gingerbread house.

P1000441

At L&T, as in other stores’ windows, animals played a major role. Spectacular Canada geese wandered amidst mannequins festively clad in red gowns or displaying gorgeous jewels.

Saks Fifth Avenue was my next stop. All their windows were done in white, featuring snow-covered renditions of China’s Great Wall, India’s Taj Mahal, France’s Eiffel Tower and more. The actual New York weather belied these winter wonderlands. Though a delight, the balmy temperatures underline the urgency, or should one say hopelessness, of the Paris climate talks that were happening at the very moment of my expedition. Saks, too, featured layered cakes and pyramids of French macarons, though a delightfully trussed suckling pig aroused my own lust.

P1000447

I crossed the street to visit Rockefeller Center’s annual Christmas tree, a tradition started in 1932 by workers who built the Center during the Great Depression. On my way down the famous promenade or Channel Gardens, meant to symbolize the arm of the Atlantic that separates England and France, I came across a giant Lego store. I was overwhelmed by the accurate reproduction of the entire Rockefeller Center out of tiny Lego bricks. The model included the famous skating rink, the Prometheus Statue and a helicopter landing on a roof.

P1000450

I successfully avoided the temptations of real chocolate stores—Lindt, Godiva, and Teuscher—and made my way to Bergdorf Goodman. It was my favorite as far as both creativity and over-the-top extravagance were concerned. The store had pooled its efforts with Swarovski’s “millions of crystals.” I was most taken with the macho Greek/Latin god Poseidon/Neptune, entirely fashioned out of delicate pearls, beard and trident included. A sequin-covered sea turtle, an equally funny sea monster sporting a lobster claw, and an elegantly clad model accompanied Neptune. I also loved the dog—or was it wolf?—faced fortuneteller, advising a woman in a gypsy-like outfit. And yes, in case you wondered, somewhere amidst all the wild fantasy of the Bergdorf Goodman windows, there were one or more layered cakes.

P1000461

Christmas windows are planned a year in advance. The 2016 windows are already in production. Let us hope that the world has improved by then.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Visiting the Musee Rodin in the Wake of World War II

Hôtel Biron

The Musee Rodin at the Hôtel Biron. (Photo by Clelie Mascaret, CC BY-SA 2.0)

For me, the reopening of the Musee Rodin unleashed floods of memories. In April 1946, a month before my nuclear family was to immigrate to the United States, my mother, who was somewhat of a tyrant, surprisingly let me visit Paris. Her reasoning was that once I’d reached America, I might never be able to return to Europe and visit its great sights.

Though I had never been there, the French capital was most familiar. During the lonely years of my illegal existence, I had devoured French roman-fleuves, serial novels that often celebrated Paris, and had familiarized myself with its street names, neighborhoods, monuments and buildings. It was almost like coming home.

Even though I had only three days, the Rodin Museum, at the Hôtel Biron, was at the top of my sightseeing list. Nelly Altorfer, one of my rescuers and mentors, had introduced me to Rodin. Nearly seventy years later, some of the details of my visit have faded, but I remember with perfect clarity the immense impact of the mansion filled with Rodin’s sculptures. Then, as now, white plaster casts and white marble sculptures filled the elegant rooms with their brilliance. More sculptures were in the park-like garden that surrounds the house. In one form or another all of Rodin’s great sculptures were present: The Thinker, Balzac in his flowing robes, The Age of Bronze, the beautifully shaped hands that form The Cathedral, The Gates of Hell, and my very own favorite: The Burghers of Calais.

The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke discovered the “for rent” mansion in 1908. He was so impressed that he wrote his friend Rodin the following letter: “You must, dear friend, see the beautiful building to which I moved this morning. Its three bays open to an overgrown, abandoned garden where rabbits jump over trellis [making it] resemble an ancient tapestry.”

Rodin hurried over, was impressed and rented space. Eventually Rodin managed to acquire the mansion from the state, living there until his death. He had arranged for the Hôtel Biron to become a private museum, which until now managed to fund itself and provide shelter for 6000 sculptures and 7000 works on paper. In time the museum aged, but in the last three years it has undergone a $17.8 million renovation.

Rodin had a somewhat late start, but attained fame toward the end of the nineteenth century. Rodin’s sculptures are realistic; they reflect their subjects’ psychological attitudes. They are emotionally satisfying and universally appealing.

The sculptor’s reputation spread across the Atlantic and today the United States is home to many great Rodin collections. (Several original casts are made from the same mold.) In addition to several other independent collections, Gerald and Iris Cantor distributed Rodin sculptures to seventy US museums.

That brief Paris trip was part of my coming of age. From 1942 to 1944, during my illegal existence in occupied Belgium, I had been mostly responsible for myself in a scary world. After the Germans left I returned home, resumed my studies and worked hard to catch up. My mom failed to acknowledge that I had grown up and I chafed against being treated like a child. There were many conflicts.

Three of my fellow students had invited me to share their trip to Paris as delegates to some student organization. I was free. We walked along the Seine and the Grands Boulevards, took pictures of the Île de la Cité from the Pont des Arts, and even attended Le Bal Tabarin, a risque cabaret. We were too poor to afford a table, but were allowed to sit at the bar sipping champagne. The female attendants in the “gender neutral” bathroom were so elegant and poised that I did not dare tip them.

My companions had to return a day early and on my last day in Paris I went to the Louvre and the Musée Rodin, the beginning of a lifelong passion of visiting art exhibitions. I was on my own and loving it. Though my trip had nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas, it taught me in no uncertain terms that: “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Picasso: The Sculptor at Work

Glass of Absinthe by Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso. Glass of Absinthe. Paris, spring 1914. (Museum of Modern Art)

Picasso is perhaps the best-known artist of the twentieth century. But throughout his career he also remained, in spirit, a genius of a little boy whose next prank was forever unexpected. This fall, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) devoted its entire fourth floor to approximately 140 sculptures the artist made between 1902 and 1964.

In size, these works range from incised pebbles to a monumental piece that stood outside the Loyalist Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair of 1937. (As an aside, it was for this same exhibition that Picasso created Guernica, his most epic work. That huge antiwar masterpiece “lived” at MoMA for 42 years until Spain got rid of its fascist dictatorship.)

Most of Picasso’s sculptures look spontaneous. They are fashioned from a variety of often unusual materials, including wood, plaster, bent metal, and bronze, as well as some objets trouvés.

The early works are somewhat conventional, but that would not remain the case for long. One of the special features of the exhibit is that it reunites, for the first time since their creation in 1914, the six absinthe glasses constructed from an actual liquor glass, a spoon and sugar cube, all cast in bronze and then painted. At first these unusual sculptures were considered banal, but today they are considered one of Cubism’s touchstones.

Many constructions, especially the animals, are humorous. All are inventive. The bull, one of Picasso’s favorite creatures, comes in several very different versions: one made from plywood, branches and ordinary hardware is edgy and transparent; another, fashioned from clay, is round and massive and devoid of details.

In Life with Picasso, Françoise Gilot, his companion of the 1940s and the mother of Claude and Paloma, provides a rare vision of Picasso’s working methods. While living in Vallauris he gathered inspiring “stuff “ at the local dump. Sometimes the scavenged objects might inspire a sculpture, as they did in the case of the bicycle seat and handlebars that yielded a wonderfully abstract bull’s head.

Sometimes, as in the case of MoMA’s famous goat, the artist searched for parts that might serve his purpose. One morning he found an old wicker basket. “That’s just what I need for the goat’s rib cage,” he told Françoise, who accompanied him pushing an empty baby carriage in which she would transport the treasures to the studio. Picasso used two of his own pottery milk pitchers for the goat’s teats. He remembered that two years earlier he had collected a promising palm frond, and used it for the goat’s face and backbone. “The horns he fashioned from vinestalk,” Françoise wrote, “and the ears were pieces of cardboard filled with plaster.” The legs were cut from the branch of a tree with knobs that would look that bent like joints. When it was all finished it was cast in bronze, and the detail of the objects he used disappeared.

Since many sculptures ended up being cast in bronze, Françoise asked why he did not simply start from scratch. Picasso answered that “there is a good reason for doing it this way…the material itself, the form and texture of those pieces, often give me the key to the whole sculpture.”

Whenever viewing a Picasso show, one wonders how he managed to create as much as he did. Indeed, to me, some of his late paintings seems a bit repetitive, but not the sculptures. This show is just great and worth several visits.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Leaving Is Dying—A Little

View from the cottage (Photo by Suzanne Loebl)

View from the cottage (Photo by Suzanne Loebl)

The weather has been horrible, which is just as well. It lessens my sadness at leaving my dream cottage in Maine. Just a few days ago I sat on its deck, savoring the autumn sun and a cup of coffee made from the last of the beans that I brought three months ago from Sahadi’s in Brooklyn. I know how fortunate I am to have two worlds I love. Elsewhere there are migrants seeking shelter, soldiers that drop bombs on civilians, torrents of rain that turn peaceful streets in raging streams, and parents that don’t have enough food for their children. Still, as the French say: “Leaving is dying—a little.”

On a whim my husband and I bought this mere acre of land almost half a century ago. The site, bordering a small lake, was promising, but the “camp” that came with it was derelict. I figured that we could always sell it. Maine, however, captured our heart. One of its skillful builders transformed and enlarged the cottage into a space that easily absorbs our children and grandchildren for a family vacation, but remains cozy when my husband and I are alone.

The cottage sits amidst moss-covered rocks, scraggly pines, and blueberry bushes, enlivened by oversized pots filled with yellow begonias and red fuchsias. Even now in October they still bloom, somehow having miraculously escaped being eaten by voracious deer.

When back in what I consider “my real life,” I’ll miss Maine’s humane, leisurely pace. Just the other day in Maine I went to the local post office, whose counter is not shielded by bulletproof plastic panels. I simply want to check the weight of a stamped envelope that might require more than the current 48-cent standard postage. The letter indeed required an additional 22 cents and I only had 10 cents with me. “Larry,” the clerk yelled, “she is short 10 cents.” Before Larry, the postmaster, could decide on a course of action, the guy behind me proffered the needed twelve cents.

When I returned to my cottage, my phone rang. My Maine family doctor was on the line. “I just wanted to tell you that your blood glucose level is back to normal. So relax.” I searched my memory for the last time a physician called me at home. (It had been my wonderful obstetrician.)

***

I have been back a mere few days and Maine is a golden memory. Here in Brooklyn I am surrounded by the love of my daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren. More than that, three times a day Viva, my poodle, and I walk along the Brooklyn Heights promenade.

We share our space with an assortment of young and old, black and white. It is an urban crowd, encumbered by baby carriages, strollers and walkers. I don’t remember seeing any of these in my car-based, Maine world. Scores of dogs rub noses with Viva, and she seems intoxicated by their smell. A young woman with shiny eyes bends down to pet her. “I got married yesterday, over there at the Water Club. See my T-shirt? It says ‘MRS.’ Forgive me, I am a bit off my rocker.” After some pleasantries I wish her good luck.

The sun is about to set, but before it disappears it kisses the waters of New York Harbor. I admire Manhattan’s incredible skyline, Lady Liberty, who so bravely holds up her torch, and the Brooklyn Bridge, which since 1883 has been a symbol of American prowess. How lucky I am to have two beloved worlds.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Farewell to Babeth, My First True Friend

Elisabeth Wolff

Elisabeth Wolff

“Triste nouvelle,” read my May 22nd e-mail from Francine Bauduin, informing me that my friend Babeth (Elisabeth Wolff) had died. The picture of the old woman that accompanied the loving announcement marked the passage of a lifetime. To me Babeth was still the child I met in 1939 at the Lycée de Forest in Brussels. We were twelve years old and she was my first true friend, probably the best one I ever had. Our deep friendship ended in 1945, and it took me decades get over the loss.

When we met, both of us were newly arrived German Jewish refugees. My nuclear family had come to Belgium in 1938 and though I had to struggle with French and get used to new mores, my life essentially remained intact. Babeth, however, had come to Belgium with the Kindertransport, a program that rescued Jewish children from Nazi Germany and Austria. She had kissed her doctor parents goodbye at the train station in Berlin. Actually she was fortunate. Her foster parents, the Hollenders, treated her as if she was their fourth daughter. Still, Babeth was extremely homesick and welcomed the familiar environment of my house with its familiar food and customs. My mother nicknamed her “Sparrow” because she was so slight and plucky.

Babeth and I became extremely close. Today it is hard for me to conceive how innocent we were. Sex was a big mystery. We studied my parents’ popular medical encyclopedia and eventually figured it out. Babeth became well versed in politics, though her devotion to Communism sowed the seeds of our eventual estrangement. We both admired Eva Hollender, Babeth’s youngest stepsister, who attended the university and led an exciting life filled with dates and political intrigues.

On May 10, 1940, the Nazis invaded Holland and Belgium. Because we were German nationals, the Belgian authorities whisked my father away. Like two million other Belgians, the Hollenders as well as my mom, my sister and I separately fled the Belgian capital. Given life’s incredible coincidences I ran into Babeth as our families were trying to cross the border into France. Neither of us succeeded in reaching Paris, and we all returned to Brussels. Babeth and I spent another two rather normal years in Brussels before Jews were threatened with deportation. We all chose to disappear underground.

I hid in “plain sight,” surviving as a nanny. I missed my friend terribly. One day I ran into Babeth unexpectedly as we both secretly navigated the occupied streets of Brussels. This encounter resulted in a brief exchange of letters. In hers Babeth covertly told me that her oldest stepsister, her stepsister’s husband and their young son had been shipped “east” and had vanished. She also had no news of her own parents. After the liberation of Brussels on September 3, 1944, I could not wait to resume our friendship.

It was not to be. Weeks after the end of the occupation Babeth entered nursing school and was mostly too busy to see me. I suspected that her reluctance was caused by my lack of enthusiasm for her extreme leftist politics, or that she could not bear the fact that my family had escaped the actual flames of the Holocaust while hers had perished.

I bid Babeth farewell before moving to America. After I left she married Jo Boute, a doctor, and they had three children, the same age as mine. Jo and Babeth moved to Jemappe, a former, rather impoverished Belgian coal mining town. Babeth became an obstetric nurse. She always took the side of the disadvantaged. Francine kidded her about discovering countless barricades. I visited in 1964, and Babeth said that she regretted our estrangement, and hoped that perhaps the time had come to resume our friendship. We even considered exchanging our children during vacation time.

During the early post-war years she searched for her parents, eventually meeting someone who had shared her father’s concentration camp experience. She did not share what she learned with anyone, but whatever it was shocked her so much that she instructed her family not to mention the Holocaust.

In 2000 after the publication of my memoir, At the Mercy of Strangers: Growing up on the Edge of the Holocaust, which celebrates our friendship, my husband and I arranged to visit Babeth and her husband. To my horror she had erased the recollection of her life in Germany and of World War II from her memory. She even asked me how we met! Francine, who met her in 1968, confirmed that she was under the impression that the Hollenders were her birth family. I was part of this amnesia.

However, slowly, my visit in 2000, my book, which included photographs of her as a child, and a copy of the letter she had written to me during our underground experience, allowed her to recapture her buried past. She also responded to questions posed by her grandchildren, especially Lucie, who became interested in world history. From then on she contacted me every few months. She even worried when she did not hear from me.

Francine’s Facebook post announcing Babeth’s passing elicited a few responses. One of them recalled Babeth “as a wonderful newborn nurse.” The doctor who cared for her during her last illness was also one of her “beloved babies.”

Her death revived the regret of having had to spend my life without her. I wish that I known Babeth as a fun adult, a fulfilled health professional, a member of her own nuclear family. Now that she is gone I hope to recapture the fierce child and teenager that I loved so much.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments