Friday, July 3, 2015

In which I need to take some advice from my 25 year old self...

My mother kept everything, which means that going through her apartment is overwhelming, but also filled with gifts from the past. Yesterday, I found a set of CD's that were converted from tapes, which were converted from stenographs made by my late grandfather Murray, who worked with William Randoph Hearst, with United Artists, and was President of 20th Century Fox International. Grandpa died when I was 6, so my memories of him are mostly of him and Grandma taking me to FAO Schwartz (which itself is now going to be just a memory) to buy my first Barbie - who had red hair.
But thanks to this oft-converted technology, I'm now listening to my grandfather's voice (with his amazing New Yawk accent) telling stories about Alexander Korda, how Korda discovered Vivian Lee, Korda's relationship with Churchill, and all sorts of incredible stuff. And that's just halfway through disc one.

I also found a folder of letters I'd written to my parents in the late 80's, when I was working on Wall St and going to  NYU business school at night for my MBA. This letter was written when I was almost finished with the MBA, but clearly feeling the strain.

"I know that I'm working toward long term goals, but to tell you the truth, I'm sick of working towards long-term goals, I want start living my life, not just passing time till I get to some point in the future."

At this particular point in time, I really needed to read those words from my younger, and apparently wiser and more clearer thinking self. Fifty-two year old me is still equally as goal oriented, ambitious, and hard working. Some things never change. What has changed is that I'm now putting that ambition towards a career that I really love, the one that I wanted to have all along but was told would never make me any money. I love my work, and so I don't mind working the hours I do, because most of the time, it doesn't feel like work.

But this summer has been crazy stressful. It's the third summer in a row that I have not one, but two books due at the end of the summer. One is a revision that had to be put off because of Mom's unexpected passing, and I'm grateful for that delay, because there's no way I could have tackled it back in March/April. The other is a totally new work, which I'm super excited about, but we haven't officially announced yet.

This week, one of my really good friends, Maura Keaney, was visiting from Virginia with her young son, and she invited me to go to the beach with them. I haven't been to the beach in my town in over two years. Maybe three, because I've spent the summer on book deadlines. I call my mid-life crisis convertible "the beach" because running errands in it, or driving to teaching jobs is the only time I get sun. When she posted pictures from Island Beach, I regretted that I wasn't able to spend the time with them catching up and making sandcastles. I love making sandcastles. I miss having the time to make sandcastles.

But Mom's apartment isn't going to clear out itself. My books won't write themselves.  As Robert Frost said so beautifully in one of my favorite poems: "But I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep." 

Still, I am listening to 25 year old Sarah. If 27 years later, I still feel the same way, I think it's pretty important to take heed of her words. Mom's death taught me that we never know when the last day will come, and I don't want mine to come when I'm still waiting for that distant point in the future when I get to stop and smell the roses. Or make the time to meet with friends I really care about and build sandcastles with their children.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Dads of Daughters: This is how you do it

Ever since Mom passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in March, we've been going through her apartment, trying to get the place ready for sale. Mom saved everything. EVERYTHING. 

Today I found the speech that my father gave at my wedding. Of course, I heard it before, on Sept 3rd, 1989, but that was a long time ago, and I was pretty overwhelmed with emotions on the day. I remember crying at the time, but today when I found it, I cried again for completely different reasons. My father died in November 2013, but even before that he had lost the incredible intelligence and way with words that made him the man he was to Alzheimer's. But not the love for us. He never lost that. His eyes always lit up when he saw us, even if he didn't remember our names.

Finding this speech brought my father back to me and made me miss him all over again. But it also reminded me of how much of who I am is because of who he and Mom were. If I am brave, it was because Dad and Mom were brave. If I have the courage to stand up for what is right, it is because he and Mom were courageous. 

If I have now found the love and support of a good man who respects my intelligence, it is because my father deeply loved my mother and respected her intelligence. 

Fathers of daughters: This is how you do it. 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Cognitive Dissonance

Like most Jews in the Diaspora, I was brought up to support Israel unconditionally. I was excited to bring my quarters to Hebrew School every week to insert in the slots in the JNF folder, so that when it was filled a tree would be planted in my name in the Holy Land. Dad's sister made aliyah in 1949 and she and my uncle raised their family on different kibbutzim.

Over the last 10 years I have had an increasingly hard time reconciling the vision of Israel I was brought up with to the current political reality, and it has made it impossible to maintain that unconditional support.  This put me in the awful position of being berated in synagogue on Shabbat when I went to say kaddish for my father and get away from politics, by a man who thought I (and indeed, all Jews in the Diaspora) have no right to such misgivings.

Last night, when I saw the racist joke tweeted by Israeli talk show host and socialite Judy Mozes, I wondered if the Israeli government is trying purposefully to destroy their relationship with Jews in the Diaspora.

You see, Mozes' husband, Silvan Shalom, was appointed last month by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to lead negotiations with the Palestinians and to oversee strategic dialogue with the United States. What better way to oversee strategic dialogue with the United States than to have your wife make a RACIST JOKE ABOUT OUR PRESIDENT DAYS AFTER RACIALLY-BASED SHOOTING OF NINE INNOCENT PEOPLE?!!

Then we've got Michael Oren publicly disparaging POTUS on every conceivable front -while pushing his new book.  That's after Netanyahu accepted the GOP invitation to address Congress prior to the Israeli elections, in a massive breach of protocol, and had the chutzpah to claim it "wasn't political", but meanwhile was broadcasting it from his website and collecting signatures at the same time.

Here's my question for Israelis and their government: we just lost nine wonderful Americans to racist violence. Let's call it what it was - we lost them to white supremacist terrorism. To people who hate Jews as well as blacks.

And guess what, Israel and Netanyahu? The people you are aligning yourself in the United States? They aren't speaking out against racism. In fact, they are avoiding it at all costs. Rick Perry called it an "accident," then "pivoted" to blame it on drugs instead of racism. Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee said "I'm not a South Carolinian" . Lindsay Graham said "The confederate flag works here."  

For strategic and pragmatic purposes, Netanyahu's government chose to ally itself with the right-wing evangelical base of the Republican party. During the Bush era, one of the Israeli embassy outreach officers to the Evangelical community came and spoke at our synagogue, and I asked him: "Why is Israel aligning itself with Evangelicals when they believe there should be an Israel so that the Rapture can happen and then if we don't accept Jesus as our personal Saviour we take the down escalator to Hell?"

He shrugged and said, "We don't believe in the Rapture, and we need the support now."

Well, I hope that support works for you, Bibi & Co, because in currying support with the right, you are losing the support of Jews like me who remember what it was like for us. Who remember that it was not so long ago that it was our families that were discriminated against and reviled. And that's why we believe in social justice and fight against racism and discrimination - not perpetrating it and allying ourselves with those who do.

During the Gaza bombing campaign, someone forwarded me the most disgusting racist anti-Palestinian screed I'd read in a very long time. If you'd substituted Jew for Palestinian, it could have been written by Goebbels. I forwarded it to my Rabbi, hoping that he might say something about it in his sermon - warning people about the sin of Loshen hara, reminding them about Joshua and the Spies, etc. But instead, he made an excuse - that when people are under stress they make bad choices.

Trust me, I understand that. I've made a lot of bad choices under stress, and continue to do so, and most likely will continue to do so. BUT....I was really disappointed by that response, because as Seth Godin pointed out so well recently:

I'm sick of being told to keep my criticism of Israel "in house" by people who ask "where are the moderate Muslims? Why aren't they speaking out?" only to see continued behavior that I find reprehensible from the highest levels of the Israeli government.

"People like us, we don't do things like that." 

Judy Mozes made her racist tweet against our president on the anniversary of the death of Jewish civil rights activists Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who along with James Chaney were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi during Freedom Summer. She should be ashamed of herself. And Israel should be ashamed of her.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Dear Teenagers - Some advice from my late Dad...via me

My dearest teens. You know I love you. I really do. That's why I write books for you, and love to answer your emails. So that's why I'm writing this post. Because I care. 

I subscribe to several daily news, business and tech email blasts to keep me informed for my "other life" as a columnist - and also because I'm interested in what's going on in the world. It helps me to be a better writer and a more interesting person. 

This morning, to my horror, in an email blast that calls itself Business Insider "Tech Select," these were the first three stories:

Relegated to "other news" were stories about how Tesla is building batteries for use in buildings and how Facebook's Ad service affects businesses. But the first three stories were about teenagers (that's you, my dears) doing this viral challenge to have have plump lips with dangerous and painful results.

After my first thought, which was to be mad at the alleged grown ups at alleged "Tech Select" for the ridiculous way they are prioritizing "news", I started hearing the voice of this guy in my head:

That's Dad and me, the day I graduated from college. Sadly, Dad passed away in November 2013 after a long struggle with Alzheimer's, but I still hear the things he said to me, the advice he gave me, as clearly as if he were standing right next to me like he was in this photo. 

And when I saw those headlines, I heard his voice saying something he so often asked me when I was a teenager: "If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it, too?"

I'm sure many of my similarly aged friends heard something to that effect from one or the other of their parents, and were as sick of hearing it as I was. 

But there is wisdom in them there cliches, my dears. Trust your Auntie Sarah on this. 

I get it. You are trying to figure out your identity. You want to be heard. And there's so much pressure today to be SEEN. 

I'm old. Or as my daughter would say, "OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLD." We didn't have things like Instagram and Facebook and YouTube when I was a teen. Heck, we didn't even have the Internet. We didn't have cellphones. So we didn't have to worry about how many followers we had or how many likes we got, or if we could get our YouTube video to go viral, because there wasn't a YouTube and viral was something associated with a disease you didn't want to get. 

But here's the thing. I was in a video that did go viral. This one.   It's had over 1.1 million hits on YouTube. 

Yet that conversation didn't go viral because my son and I went into the StoryCorps booth with the intention of creating something viral. We didn't even know it would be on NPR Morning Edition. We didn't even know that it would be turned into an animation. We didn't know, when we walked into that booth, that one day we would be on Good Morning America.  We never thought for a moment that because of it we would be on our very first red carpet: 

We certainly hadn't the slightest idea that one day we would be in the front row at the TED Conference when Dave Isay, the founder of StoryCorps, and winner of the 2015 TED Prize, announced his Wish for the World.   

All of those incredibly amazing experiences happened because my son and I went into the StoryCorps booth with the sole intention of having a genuine, honest conversation with each other - of making a loving, human connection. And we did that. Even if none of the other things had happened, we would have achieved what we set out to do. 

The rest is gravy. Really exciting and wonderful gravy, and I am so grateful for all of the experiences we have come out of this. I also continue to be amazed by how this conversation connects with people from all over the world, no matter their nationality, race or religion. 

That's what's important, my dears. Not having plump lips. Not looking like anyone else. Being the best YOU that you can be and making human connections. 

 So please, I beg you - the next time you think about doing one of these ridiculous challenges, just remember my dear old Dad and pick up a book instead. You'll thank me later. I promise. 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Another Dear Congressman Letter

Dear Jim - 

I already wrote you another Dear Congressman piece on the subject of school libraries  after our meeting last year. Today you asked me "So it's bad for a legislator to ask for facts and data?"

Well Jim, of course it isn't, and I feel, once again, you are asking me a disingenuous question, which makes me lose even more of the respect I once had for you. Because Jim, you know I once had a LOT of respect for you. What's more, I BELIEVED in you. I really thought that if we sent a smart guy like you to Washington it could really make a difference for our country. I lost my columnist gig with Hearst over you - but I even thought it was worth it, because I believed in you that much. 

But you want to know something? You have done more to make me discouraged with our political system than anyone. It's the people we believe in most that cause the greatest damage to our beliefs. 

So why do I feel you are being disingenuous? 

Let's see...perhaps because when we met to discuss education, I brought you lots of "facts and data." I brought you studies that showed that TFA are less effective than traditionally trained teachers, and the higher costs to school districts of their frequent turnover. 

I brought you data about how despite charter schools like Achievement First claiming 100% graduation rates, if you look at their cohort graduation rate from the students who start 9th grade it's nothing too special. 

I told you about charters not serving the same special ed and ELL populations and Achievement First having the highest kindergarten suspension rate in CT, and the lawsuit against them for special ed violations and how it made me furious when I read it because some of the things they were PUNISHING kids for were the kinds of coping strategies my son would use when he was trying to avoid a meltdown when he was having sensory overload. But these kids were being PUNISHED for that. 

But despite being my legislator, you didn't appear to have the same intellectual curiosity about THOSE "facts and data."And I can't help thinking that it's because it's too politically inconvenient for you to do so. That's why when you asked me the question about research on school libraries, it seemed more like you were deflecting me so you didn't have to answer my question, rather than requesting actual facts and data. 

I gave you the facts and data anyway, because there's over 40 years worth of studies proving the efficacy of having certified school librarians. Annual Testing like SBAC that we're wasting so many billions of dollars on? Not so much. But that doesn't seem to make a difference to policy makers, does it? Because facts and data don't appear to be driving education policy. 

 Why weren't you, and Dan Malloy, and Arne Duncan et al asking such questions BEFORE making the policy that is destroying our education system, driving teachers out of the profession (despite Gov Malloy's utterly ridiculous claim that they are all leaving "because they were hired at the same time, like the state troopers") and wasting billions of taxpayer dollars? Why weren't you asking questions about no-bid contracts by all the crony edreform folks? Because I've been asking those questions. 

Here's another thing that seriously rattled me about my Congressman: your reaction to being told of a Democratic elected official threatening to sue a member of the press, despite not being able to point to anything factually inaccurate in the piece. There's a name for when someone does that -  it's called a SLAPP suit - stands for "strategic lawsuit against public participation", and it's intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense.

 If a Republican had done this during the Bush years, I know you would have had something to say about it. But instead you laughed it off, like it wasn't an attempt at press intimidation by your own party. Now you're probably going to tell me you're a supporter of the First Amendment, but your reaction sure didn't give me a whole lot of confidence that as my Congressman you're going to do much to protect me, a constituent of yours and a journalist, if it's someone in the Democratic Party at fault. In fact, it showed me that you are happy to put party over process. 

And that, Jim, is why I am not a party member anymore, and why you, personally, have made me so incredibly disillusioned with the political process. Because if someone I thought was a smart, good guy ends up like this after a few terms in Washington, what the hell hope do we have in this country?

I would write more, but I spent four hours today doing a library program with seven other authors getting kids excited about writing - because they don't get the chance to do enough creative writing in school these days. Too much testing. Too much Common Core. All those things you told me were so wonderful and needed. 

I spent the afternoon with kids who crave creativity - who couldn't wait to use their voices. Isn't that what we should be encouraging in a democracy instead of test taking?

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Mom's Words of Wisdom

When you're grieving, you never know what will trigger the next meltdown, that next wave of uncontrollable sobbing, the feeling that your heart is broken into so many tiny fragments that it cannot ever possibly be whole again.

This morning I wanted to be brave, because my mother had been taking a memoir class at the Ferguson Library in Stamford, and she'd been working hard to complete her recollections, focusing on the theme of strong women in our family. I found out from someone in her class who came to make a condolence call that the deadline is April 18th, and so I'm going to try to finish the job for her.  Her work was all laid out on the dining room table in her apartment, and we'd put it in an archive box.

I hadn't had the courage to start reading, but I knew I had to do it today.

And at the end of chapter two, I read this:

"Life is a patchwork quilt. Each piece of experience, whatever size or shape, is part of our whole being. Our friends and family, our children, and their children, our forbearers and those to come in the future, all enlarge the quilt. We are covered in their love. And our love covers them.

I learned from a woman who was a prisoner in Romania in solitary for several years. She said that experiences couldn't be taken away from her, as material things can. Throughout her incarceration and torture, she made her thoughts turn to experiences: trips she would retake in her mind, planning how she would decorate her new home if she got out. Give yourself and your family every experience, don't wish you had done something and put it off."

My mother was an amazing, strong woman. I miss her so much.

PS: I taught my youngest nephew "Carpe Diem" on Sunday. I told him it was the way smart people say "YOLO." Then I introduced him to my friend Irene, who grew up in Germany and is a Latin scholar, to make sure he said it correctly. So now he knows how to say it in both English and German learned Latin. CARPE DIEM, my friends. And sew your love into the patchwork quilt of humanity.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Eulogy for my mother, Susan S. Darer

Delivered at Temple Beth-El, Stamford, CT March 22nd, 2015

When you’re a teenager trying to assert your own identity, pretty much the last thing you want to hear is how much you look like your mother. But I heard it a lot, and in that funny way history has of repeating itself, my daughter Amie has heard it once or twice herself, much to her chagrin.

But standing here today, nothing makes me happier than knowing that I bear a strong resemblance to my mother.

Since Mom’s unexpected passing earlier this week, we’ve all been in shock. Every morning we wake up hoping that it was bad dream, only to be hit again with the painful understanding that living in a world without our beloved mother and grandmother is the dreadful new reality.

I make my living as a writer, but when I tried to begin penning this eulogy, I had a rare moment of writer’s block. Because how can mere words sum up Mom?

I first tried – and failed – to do this in the dedication of my book CHARMED, I’M SURE which comes out next spring. I’m so, so grateful that I gave Mom the manuscript to read on her recent trip to Israel, so that she knew about the dedication. It says: To my mother, Susan Darer, for teaching me to become the woman I am today.

But that short sentence doesn’t begin to do Mom justice.

Here’s where it helps to have friends who are bestselling authors, so you can crib the words and ideas that they write in in their condolence letters.

Cinda Williams Chima wrote this: “You look so much like her, and I’m sure that’s not her only legacy to you. So you can think of yourself as carrying your parents forward through the years.”

Reading Cinda’s words made me think about Mom’s greatest legacies to John, Anne and me - the ones we are endeavoring to carry forward.

The most important of these is family – not just us, not just our aunts and uncles and first cousins, but our great aunts and uncles, and our second and third cousins. Unfortunately our great aunts and uncles are no longer with us, but when we were growing up it was like having multiple sets of grandparents, dispensing love and wisdom and guidance. Family gatherings were big fun affairs, and if you married into the family you probably needed a scorecard to keep track.  But the second cousins we grew up are with are here today supporting us in love, and our kids are friends with their third cousins. That’s what we mean in Yiddish when we use the word mishpocheh.

But another legacy our mother left us is the knowledge that family members aren’t merely the people related to us by blood or marriage.  She modeled that we create family by caring about those around us. Seeing faces here from so many different time periods and facets of her life is a testament to that. As someone who is struggling to face the fact that she no longer has parents, I hope that I can look to you, the extended family Mom created, to continue to dispense the love, wisdom and guidance our mother is no longer here to give us.

For all of us who loved Mom, the shock of her sudden passing feels like having limbs torn off without anesthetic.  In recent years Mom hadn’t just been my parent, she’d become my friend. During challenging moments with my teenagers, I’d call her up and apologize time after time for everything I’d ever said and done to her when I was a teenager – and as everyone who knew me when I was in high school can attest, I had a LOT to apologize for. It got to the point that Mom gave me the Jewish equivalent of a Papal Indulgence – “Enough already, I forgive you once and for all!”

Mom with her granddog, Benny
We were able to have deeper conversations, about life and love, and even politics, a subject area where over the last decade of being a columnist I’ve developed a reputation for being rather outspoken. I know this made Mom proud, even though it sometimes caused her problems. For instance, there was the time someone who couldn’t get my unlisted phone number left her several vitriolic messages late at night, resulting in us having to file a complaint with the Stamford police.  I was beside myself because I’ve had to develop what it takes to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune but folks should know better than to mess with my mom.
Still, I was glad we’d started to have such conversations, because when I was growing up, politics was an area where my father’s voice overshadowed my mother’s.  

Beth Styles, to whom I’m so grateful for being here with Mom’s New World Chorus family today, wrote about how our mother returned the love she received from fellow choir members after Dad’s death by volunteering to be the leader of the Chorus’ care team. Beth wrote: “It was her desire that everyone in the choir felt known and acknowledged.” 

That really resonated with me, because my son Josh and I found out that we’d lost Mom when we’d just got off a plane on the way back from attending the TED conference in Vancouver after hearing Dave Isay of StoryCorps, winner of the 2015 TED Prize, announce his Wish for theWorld. 

StoryCorps is an oral history project that aims to provide people of all backgrounds with the opportunity to record and share their life stories in the belief that “every life matters equally and infinitely.”

Anne and I interviewed Dad for Father’s Day shortly after the first StoryCorps booth opened in Grand Central in 2003. It wasn’t long after that, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, so we’re so grateful to have that recording. In 2006, Josh and I went into the booth together, and as a result, ended up at the TED conference last week. In 2010, Mom and Dad were recorded at StoryCorps as part of the Alzheimer’s initiative, and later that year, I interviewed Mom. I’m so glad I didn’t wait.

To honor Mom’s memory please consider having a conversation of your own with someone you love. You no longer have to wait for an appointment at a StoryCorps booth – at TED, Dave announced a new StoryCorp app, which helps you with questions and gives helpful hints on how to record a meaningful interview. It then allows you to upload your recording to the Library of Congress.

 Don’t put it off, because as I learned so painfully this week, you don’t know when you’ll kiss your mother goodnight after spending a great evening together and say: “See you when I get back, I love you,” only to return to find out that you won’t see her again, ever.

Mom touched so many lives in a positive way. In an age where society too often focuses attention on the loudest, the flashiest and the wealthiest, she was a quiet, humble hero. She was my hero. My greatest hope is that I will live the rest of my life in a way that is truly worthy of the example she set.