Landing at the airport in Jackson Hole in 1996 was a breathless experience: I was immediately transformed by the cool, crisp mountain air and clear sky that was devoid of Washington, DC’s congestion, honking horns, and tall buildings. I was in Jackson scouting for the perfect place to start a summer camp for under-resourced DC youth, and when I found Broken Arrow Ranch nestled between the Hoback River and the mountains, I knew that I had found just the right place.
Twenty-five years ago this week, I had dinner at the home of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, adviser for East-West relations, in Bonn. After an improbable candlelit dinner party discussion with several of the Chancellor’s top advisers about how we’d never see a united Germany in our lifetimes (after I suggested it), the “red phone” rang, and during dessert we were told to turn on the television where the news was shockingly announcing that the East German government was going to allow their citizens to cross into West Germany the following day—for the first time in decades. Die Mauer wird zerstort—the Wall will be destroyed.
After I dashed into town with my dinner colleagues, the chief aide in my Bundestag office called to let me know that former German Chancellor Willy Brandt was about to be en route to Berlin. I worked for the German Bundestag at that time and also worked for the Willy Brandt Foundation for Development & Peace (while I received a Deutscher Bundestag Fellowship). Willy Brandt was an esteemed member of the Parliament and chairman of the SDP Social Democratic Party.
So, a few pals and I, who attended the Friedrich Wilhelms Universitat together, rented three cars and drove through the night to arrive in Berlin to be among the very first at dawn to witness the East Germans crossing over Check Point Charlie and to see the first East German Trabant “Trabis” and Wartburg automobiles drive over the border.
Each of us ignored the soldiers standing guard with rifles in arm, and jumped onto the Berlin Wall in a celebration of freedom that still gives me chills today. We celebrated, we hugged, we danced and sang—and cried—as the borders opened and families united. I also was able to stand near Willy Brandt as he made the most remarkable first speech in front of Germans, who were standing united for the first time in almost 45 years.
I stood there chopping down the Wall as the son of a father from Bayreuth whose family traced its German roots back hundreds and hundreds of years. The son of the same father whose bar mitzvah would have occured on that same day, November 9, but 51 years earlier—had it not been for Kristallnacht. November 9: the day the Kaiser was forced to abdicate. November 9: the day Hitler attempted his famous coup “Putsch” in Munich 1923. November 9: the same day that in 1923 my father’s parents, my grandparents, married—also in Munich, Bavaria.
My head spun with joy and a bittersweet worry that a united Germany would forget the 12 horrible years of Hitler’s regime. Yet we celebrated, and I shared my family stories (how my dad served as the US Deputy Security Officer of Berlin after returning to Germany as an American soldier in the Battle of the Bulge, just a few short years after arriving on one of the last ships allowed to leave Germany for the United States six months after the start of World War II).
November 9: I was in Berlin. I stood on the Wall. And I celebrated as we chopped it down. I was hosed by the guards who just hours earlier would’ve been ordered to shoot us. November 9: a day of freedom.
Several months later, on May 8, 1990—45 years to the day that Germany surrendered (and 45 years since my Dad was with General Eisenhower at the “Little Red School House” witnessing the surrender of Nazi Germany) I was sitting with Willy Brandt in his offices in Bonn. He had perhaps spent the best months of his political life. As the chairman of the Social Democratic Party, and the father of “Ostpolitik,” he embraced East-West relations in the 1970s when no one argued for it.
The Chancellor, the former Mayor of Berlin who stood next to President John F. Kennedy as he declared “Ich bin ein Berliner,” was beaming, embracing, and relishing in the thought of a united Germany when we sat together that day in May. He was quite distressed, however, that while I too was excited, I was also quite worried—and that I especially feared the talk that the Unification Day (Germany’s version of July Fourth) would be November 9, a day that held such sad significance in German modern history. He was at first among those who thought the date’s significance would make a positive out of a negative—but he later understood my worry, and that of so many others, that November 9, while extraordinary in its meaning and celebration, could not and should not whitewash its significance in history at the end of WWI, in 1923 in Munich, and in 1938 when all of Germany’s synagogues burned or were destroyed (including the one that day which was meant for a certain 13-year-old German boy’s bar mitzvah in Bayreuth).
That could not happen then. And November 9 could not be celebrated as Germany’s Unification Day now. I can’t take credit for this, nor could I try—especially considering Willy Brandt’s deep understanding and appreciation for perception and the significance of symbolism (he was indeed the first German Chancellor to fall to his knees in Warsaw before the monument commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto) and it is Brandt who quietly worked with others to be sure that German Unification Day would not be November 9 but rather October 3—the day Germans (East and West) voted to be one.
And, like so many world citizens that day—and every day since October 1990—I, too, celebrate a unified Germany while never forgetting the joy I felt on top of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Alan H. Fleischmann is president & CEO of Laurel Strategies, the global strategic communications firm. He lived and worked in Germany during the period before, during, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He Iives in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with his wife and two children.
Nancy Doyle Palmer is a Washington-based journalist and screenwriter. Her work has appeared in Washingtonian, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Atlantic, and the Huffington Post. Her screenplay Sluglines is currently in development. John S. Palmer, a veteran news broadcaster for more than 40 years with NBC News, died in August, 2013, and his memoir, Newscatcher, was published this month. Here, Nancy shares their story.
I’m a new widow, so sometimes I’m oblivious. Like when Cat Stevens lyrics circle through my head—“And though you want things to last forever you know they never will…you know they never will”—all day long, and I don’t even realize it’s significant.
My husband of 31 years died a year ago last August, after a sudden 20-day stay in the hospital that, looking back, had all the elements of a slow-motion car accident. The immediacy of the transition was like having a baby—you go from being hugely pregnant to actual childbirth to being a new mother in the space of mere hours. But this time, like taking a series of photographs, I went from—flash!—high-alert nurse to—flash!—holding his face against mine as he quietly left us to—flash!—a widow.
So seamless that there is no pausing to be shocked. You just come out the other side.
The awkwardness came quickly, too. I spent the next week talking to pretty much everyone I had ever met—increasingly tall men and boys stooping over to hug me, me returning the embraces feeling hunched and clumsy. I find myself embarrassed when I am alone with men, a weird and adolescent humiliation. The crone feeling returns as I see myself, crying, in the mirror—hoping for a pretty tear-stained face, sweetly vulnerable, but greeted instead by a perfect rendering of Munch’s “The Scream.”
In my husband’s final days, the young man I married came back—he became thin again, his face unlined, an innocence of intent and heart restored as he became increasingly both less and more himself.
I find myself remembering all our lucky times, all the things that made us us, all the little ways we celebrated. We are the Palmers! We love the beach! We love Dalmatians and Jack Russell terriers! We have one, two, three little girls! We love their schools! We love Jeeps! We ski! We collect Limoges boxes to symbolize everything!
Moments of pure contentment come back in force: early autumn evenings, when I bring him a drink outside while he grills our dinner and we hug in quiet perfection as we listen to the hum of our children inside, the youngest belting out Disney songs up in her room.
That particular child, now 26, sat down next to me on my bed not long ago, half dressed for work, with her arm around me as I wept from the worst kind of dream, the kind that comes right before waking devastation—one where he was back and telling me it was all a mistake. She has his presence and her own grace as she sits quietly next to me.
I met him 35 years ago when he was in the midst of, yet seemingly oblivious to, his own grief. He’d lost his sister, his mother, and then his father, all while working overseas as a television news correspondent. He returned to the US to cover the White House; I was his production assistant. He invited me to be his guest at a luncheon hosted by President Carter for the King and Queen of Belgium. He later invited me to his home in Georgetown to watch 60 Minutes. He told me he loved me the first night we spent together. I chalked it up to so much loss, but worried when he stopped saying it so much. Then he proposed.
My gentle grief counselor advises meditation. We shut our eyes together, and she asks me to find him. He’s usually on a bench at the base of an improbably gorgeous tree, waiting for me. Something happens when I join him that I cannot yet describe or easily replicate, but something happens all the same. I don’t fear it or crave it; it’s elusive. Days or weeks pass before I even want to try to go there again.
My counselor tells me this kind of grief can be a beautiful journey. I accept the dare.
When I was little, I was afraid to spend the night out. My sole, disastrous venture into summer camp involved a daily visit to the director’s office to call home and beg my parents to come get me. The word homesick is one of the most apt in the English language. My long-dormant symptoms have all returned: the awakenings at dawn, the misty distractions that clear into hard truth, the sinking abdominal certainty that something is very wrong.
In the fall, I swim in our overheated neighborhood pool through November, escorted by my increasingly vigilant Jack Russell Terrier and her tennis ball. I start my laps in the warm water at dusk—earlier each day—pausing to look up at the tops of trees still shimmering in golden summer hues. Treetops are my heaven, and I know he is there. I know I will be going someday, too. Sometimes I wish it was soon.
I can’t count the times and places over the last 32 years that he sat by a pool while I swam laps, patiently waiting (okay, sometimes drinking and smoking) or throwing a ball for the dog over and over again. Now, though he’s not there when I check through my goggles, it’s still water where I find him. I swim in it. Can’t drink enough of it. It blurs my eyes.
In the last few years, he cried easily—often to the embarrassment of our daughters—talking about an act of decency or moment of applause, remembering Martin Luther King, President Kennedy, his father. His face would grow wet, and he’d use both fists to wipe his eyes. Sometimes I shared the girls’ impatience with this, but more often my heart welled as much as his eyes did.
Now mine are the tears that spring and sting, unbidden—at the craziest triggers, but most often because of my proximity to love, and love’s wonderful first cousin, kindness.
In the last week of my husband’s life, the doctors noted something called la belle indifference. It’s a phenomenon of naïve or inappropriate lack of concern about one’s illness or disability, also called a conversion disorder. I call it heaven.
In those final days, he was unaware he was terribly ill, that he had lost his sight, that he could barely breathe without machines, that he was dying. He was chatty, sociable, lively, and darling. His often-muted Southern accent was out in force. He was always holding someone’s hand. He knew all the news headlines. He put the chaplain at ease. When our oldest daughter had the idea to take turns reading aloud chapters from his unpublished memoir, he listened with his eyes fixed off in the distance, often finishing an anecdote or punchline along with us.
The night before he died, I drew a lounge chair close to his bed, and we recounted every beautiful hotel room we’d ever been in, deciding the Dolder Grand in Zurich was the very best. I’d drift off to sleep only to awaken to the alarm that signaled he’d removed his oxygen mask. It was like taking care of a restless child. He kept pulling off the mask as if to see something better—listening to someone’s call.
I don’t think his beautiful indifference was a hysteric reaction to the reality of his death so much as it was a choice. A dare.
My husband was a fine man—tender, kind, sincere, and very funny. The quality that always struck me the most was that he was brave. He demonstrated this often in his career as a war correspondent, in the face of danger, illness, career setbacks, but also as a fierce protector of his family and friends. He always went first.
The last day of his life, we gathered around him, and one of our favorite respiratory technicians, a young man named Taki, came in. He told us that while it might feel that we were losing him, we were, in fact, winners. Because we had so much love.
This is what I’ve learned: Love is an element as real and transformative as time and water, a force so powerful it is both the root of and the solution to grief. John’s graceful affect was his gift to us and our lesson to absorb.
The answer to understanding the loss of someone I loved wholeheartedly for most of my life came not in tears, trees, or memory but in simple math—an algebraic formula for my broken heart.
Nancy + John = Love
Nancy - John = Grief
Nancy + Grief = Love
Love is the answer. Love is all you need.
So when the refrain returns—the looping lyrics like Macy Gray’s “There is beauty everywhere” swirling in my head—I finally understand.
For more about Nancy and John, watch a clip of Nancy talking about her husband on the Today show this past Sunday.
Washington is a famously transient town. It attracts—and repels—a spinning number of people to its nucleus of power. Local lore inevitably spins quickly, too. Pressing stories gravitate front and center before a regularly refreshed audience, displacing yesterday’s news. So it isn’t surprising how few Washingtonians—a broad term, given how many residents, like myself, enjoy the city for some years before being called to other locales—will likely remember a dog named Ruby.
Ruby’s story is 13 years old, after all, shared in this very magazine with a poignant publishing date of September 2001. The article told the tale of how an elegant English setter was once rescued from a local animal shelter; how she was immediately hit by an SUV on R Street; how she disappeared, gravely injured, for ten agonizing days into nearby Rock Creek Park; how Georgetown residents of all political stripes joined together to search for her; how a real-life pet detective arrived on the scene with tracking dogs to canvass the woods; how former Clinton Cabinet member and current University of Miami President Donna Shalala made hushed phone calls to gain access to locked gates on historic grounds, where Ruby had been spotted; how the late Washington Post doyenne, Katherine Graham, chimed into add pressure; how an animal psychic in San Francisco “astral projected” her very soul to Washington to both locate and “talk” to Ruby, and, after doing so, how she correctly identified my dog’s hiding place, two miles north of Georgetown, near the remote horse stables and beneath the Taft Bridge; and how, remarkably, Ruby was found in that very spot, near dead but finally, blessedly saved.
But Ruby’s story remains half-told. And, now, as my family prepares to scatter her ashes beneath a newly planted butterfly bush in our backyard here in Westchester, New York—Ruby loved butterflies, and I hope it attracts them by the fluttering dozens—it’s time to tell the rest.
What I left out of my original article (because it was too fresh and because we didn’t yet know the ending or whether it would be a good or tragic one) was that my then-31-year-old husband Ben had just been diagnosed with a very rare, almost always fatal, cancer. Married for just 18 months, we hurriedly moved to Washington from Oxford, UK, where he’d been working at the university and where his adrenal carcinoma was first detected.
Only 300 people in the US each year are diagnosed with cancer of the adrenal glands; so few that no one’s bothered to research any therapies, much less a cure. Ben had won the unlucky lottery.
Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, just a 45-minute drive, then offered on staff one of the only experts in the world on the subject, and so the District suddenly became our new home. It was a rude welcome: Ben’s oncologist put my husband’s odds of living another five years at a meager ten percent—ten percent better than a death sentence. For extra emphasis he added with a cynical laugh that discussing treatment options was akin to “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”
“We need to get a dog,” I insisted to Ben, rather irrationally, desperate not to face what lay before us: the surgeries, the chemotherapy, the limbo of remission. “You’re going to need something else to focus on, something to hold.” What I didn’t say, or even consciously acknowledge at the time, was that it was I who needed these things. It was I who wanted the dog and the emotional rescue.
Ben wouldn’t deny me, of course, although privately he wondered if such a distraction would only complicate matters. And of course she did.
We met Ruby at a no-kill shelter in Northern Virginia on April 2, 2001. After screenings and paperwork, I was allowed to drive her back to our apartment on R Street on April 11. On April 19, spooked by a well-meaning neighbor at our front door, she dashed outside and into the busy road, where—thump—she was hit by a car before dashing off, ironically fueled (despite her massive injuries) by a jolt of adrenaline, the very hormone my husband now lacked and, in short order, would no longer produce for himself.
His chemotherapy had started a few days before. He’d already endured two surgeries and two recoveries and was vomiting in the wastebasket beneath his desk at work at his new job. But Ruby was lost and likely dying in the woods. We had to find her. So his cancer took a back seat.
You may (or may not) remember the so-called ending: how Ben found our dog panting in the tall grass beneath the Taft Bridge, well over a week after the accident, extremely weak and with two mangled legs, just as the animal psychic, procured by the shelter, had foretold. Yet the moment Ruby spotted my husband, she bolted. So fearful of people back then, she ran straight for Rock Creek Parkway, and like a live-action game of “Frogger,” she dashed through speeding traffic, broken bones and all, with my sickly husband giving weak chase, risking life and limb to do so.
What happened after Ben caught her? After Ruby had surgery to add a plate to her front leg, after she’d endured a long stay at the animal hospital, and after a welcome home party with a big cake?
I’m pleased to say that life happened. For both Ruby and my husband.
They each had a very tough summer. Ben’s remaining adrenal gland, gradually poisoned by the daily onslaught of chemo, suddenly burst and nearly killed him that July. Ruby, too, was a jittery mess, skittish to go into the park, afraid to let anyone close, terrified to go near other dogs. Her wrecked body took many months to heal. Ben spent two consecutive days in the Georgetown University ER while they tried and almost failed to properly diagnose him as his body crashed. Finally, as his blood pressure plummeted dangerously low—doctors frantic, nurses beyond frustrated—the medics put two and two together and pumped him full of cortisol and salt, his new elixir for life. He slowly revived and was eventually stabilized. Ruby, meanwhile, snored lightly by my side that night, after I finally returned home, utterly exhausted after almost losing another love.
It took a full year for man and dog to exit the fog of illness. Ben lost 40 pounds. Gaunt, with cheekbones and clavicles sharply honed, he would drag Ruby on her long leash out for a walk and do anything to engage her, to bring her back to life. She’d resist; he’d pull harder. They were both searching for joy, I think—the naïve, youthful joy one exudes before the rough, often random risks of the world issue dark reminders of how quickly everything can go terribly wrong.
Ben feared starting a family. Who could blame him? We faced a five-year window, after all, before we would know with certainty whether or not he was in the clear. The slowest-growing cancers usually return within this time frame, and his was said to be extremely aggressive. Talk of babies would need to wait, maybe be put off forever. I silently mourned: What if I never get the chance to become a mother? I love my husband, I’ll stand by him always, but I was distraught; first I had to face the distinct possibility of losing Ben, and now I would likely lose out on motherhood, too, something I’d always longed to experience.
Still, there was nothing to discuss. Ruby became our child.
“I’d like you to meet the mother of my dog,” is how Ben would jokingly introduce me to his friends and colleagues, and I laughed along, because she was quickly filling a maternal void. Ruby was so needy, so easily startled, so demanding of my attention. She was a tenacious toddler, always pawing at my knee, digging up the flowers or putting things in her mouth—rocks, pencils, even a stray poker chip gobbled at the park—that she shouldn’t eat. She was a full-time job.
A freelance writer, I soon found I couldn’t work without her lying at my feet. Ruby learned to sit there patiently for hours until I finished typing, so we could go outside to enjoy the sunshine together. This reverie was only interrupted when she licked my bare toes in an earnest attempt to spit-bathe them. We developed such a mutual devotion, she and I, that when I did become pregnant in 2003—Ben, beginning to believe he’d live, wanted to try—I actually wondered if it was possible to adore my new baby as much as my beloved canine companion. (I did, of course, and do.)
Two daughters arrived, the second in 2007, and we were complete. After years of highs and lows, of ebbing and waning health, Ben’s strength had miraculously rebounded; he’d beaten those terrible odds. We still don’t know how or why. And our dog found joie de vivre; she assumed the role of oldest sibling, showing our pack how things were done at the park. Our three girls ran together in the grass, Ruby sitting guard at the playground’s fence while her sisters climbed and soared on the swings. They chased the butterflies, too, Ruby’s right front leg stiffening into a sharp point before she pounced.
We were a happy party of five. Once, when I was lured to a storefront palm reader on M Street during a fun night out with a girlfriend, I smiled when the gypsy told me I had three lights encircling me, each representing a child. Yes, I agreed, that’s true.
We reluctantly left Washington in 2008 for a job in Los Angeles. The joke was that Ruby would spend her retirement years playing golf and enjoying the sunshine, and that she deserved both. The latter was indeed the case; we’d leave the French doors open to our bug-less backyard—so amazing after combatting the hordes of mosquitos in DC—and she’d sit outside on the hot stone patio for hours, panting until she couldn’t bear the dry desert heat a moment longer. Then she’d pull herself up, head for the shade indoors, slurp up a quick slosh of water from her bowl and, moments later, return to repeat the process. This was her agenda every cloudless afternoon.
We expected our life in LA to go on like this. But in 2009 Ruby grew a bulbous, bleeding tumor from her knee, seemingly overnight, which was diagnosed as a fast-moving cancer, one that would quickly spread to her lymph nodes. Ben took this news hard; he’d been spared, and he couldn’t bear the notion our dog might not be, as if we somehow owed one life for the other. We held onto her very hard as we waited for the test results; we begged her not to leave us. When she was given the all clear some days later, we considered the reprieve our family’s second miracle. And we gave thanks. We’d caught the cancer and removed it in time. Ruby would live.
And live she did. Limping from her earlier accident, stiff and in pain from encroaching arthritis, the sweet girl could no longer chase butterflies as she had in her youth. But despite the rough start, she curled into our life as we curled into her. And she was always game. Walking back from Starbucks during summer mornings, we’d play “the race.” Five houses from our front door, all three of my girls would line up and wait for me to say: Ready? Set. Go! Then they would take off galloping down the sidewalk, Ruby always lagging behind, but only until my daughters purposely slowed their gaits to allow the dog to catch up and win. She’d reach our door first, kids cheering, her tail wagging like a white flag, believing herself the victor. And it made me smile every time to see it.
We made one final move back to the East Coast last September. Ruby was now 14—at minimum—and I worried terribly about transporting her. When the animal-relocation team finally pulled up to our new house near midnight and let my dog out of her airline-approved crate, I sobbed with relief. So did my oldest daughter, who’d begged to wait up with me. Ruby, meanwhile, excitedly knocked my bathrobe-clad body over as she moved into the house to explore the stacked cardboard boxes filling the otherwise-empty rooms, sniffing out her favorite bed in the den within twenty seconds of her arrival. She was home.
It was a hard winter in New York and in DC—and in much of the country, as well. Ruby’s sharp decline coincided with the escalation of the bitter cold. She stopped eating and dropped six pounds in four months. She slept most of the day. Her eyesight had been faltering for years; her hearing was long gone. But it was the seizures—sometimes as many as six a day—that started up and brought her down. She would fall over stiff as a board onto her side, convulse violently for a minute or sometimes longer as her head strained backward at an awkward angle, her tongue lolling out of her mouth, her eyes glazed and unseeing, her heart racing unnaturally, her breath forced and labored. And each time, her bowels or bladder or both would let loose, and my regal, legendary dog would soil her gorgeous white fur. And there was nothing I could do but stroke her head, do my best to clean her up, kiss her aging snout, tell her not to worry, and encourage her to eat her anti-seizure medicine, hoping it would begin to work. I prayed it would.
But it didn’t. And on April 2, 2014, exactly thirteen years to the day from when we first locked eyes with her in Northern Virginia, Ruby drew her last breath in our home. I held her paw and wept, as guttural sounds issued somewhere from deep within me. We’d lost our first child. Our most constant friend. Our dog.
A few days later we left for Washington. The kids were on spring break, and we’d decided to stop in DC on our way to visit the grandparents down south. We also had a mission: to return a little bit of Ruby’s spirit to the neighborhood whose residents had once joined together to save her life.
And so, on an unseasonably warm April day, ignoring our own transience, or the possible transience of the townspeople strolling in Georgetown on R Street, we ventured into Montrose Park, flowering and green. It was a place Ruby had grown to love, where she’d first learned to play with other dogs and relax into the pleasures of living. And where, so long ago, she’d first vanished amid the cherry blossoms.
There, past the far-back tree line, where the manicured park merges into the wild underbrush of Rock Creek woods, beyond the steep and hilly terrain that leads to a small bridge crossing a rocky creek, where local dogs have claimed the rushing water as their own swimming hole, we took out a covert little bag filled with some of Ruby’s ashes—the bulk of which were saved to grow a butterfly bush back in New York—and scattered a few into a flowering shrub overlooking the dogs splashing below.
And here some of our beautiful dog remains. You’ll find her spirit a few feet removed from foot traffic, fortifying the clovers and crocuses that attract the Cabbage Whites, the Silver-Spotted Skippers, the many Monarchs that swarm to these climes in warmer months. A big part of Ruby’s story belongs to Washington, and while it’s no longer pressing, this final chapter makes her more than just a distant District dog tale or ancient lore once buzzed about but now forgotten. Now she’s a permanent resident, nothing transient about her. Now Ruby is forever yours, too.
Two excellent new books—by Todd Purdom and Clay Risen—have been written that seek to explain how the Civil Rights Act passed when most knowledgeable observers thought it would never survive a Southern Democratic filibuster in the Senate. The LBJ Library at the University of Texas held a “summit,” and the JFK Library in Boston held a forum. Its importance has been duly certified at many other events.
What is often missing, however, is a clear expression of why the act was so important. I’ll wager that most celebrants have only the vaguest notion of what the act accomplished and how it truly changed the fabric of American life.
A good way to test this hypothesis is to describe for a teenager or young adult what life was like for almost all African-Americans before the act passed. Those of us who are old enough to recall life before passage can talk about the inability of African-Americans to buy a Coke from Woolworth’s or take their families out for Sunday dinner at a good restaurant or make a trip that involved spending the night somewhere. The most fundamental things—using rest room facilities, eating, and sleeping were off limits.
Your kids or grandkids look at you as if you're crazy. “No way,” I've been told. “Are you making that up?” Or, “That is just terrible. How can that be?”
How do you bring to life that the achievement of dignity and the stamping out of humiliation in everyday life was the act’s great accomplishment?
I worked for Senator Hubert Humphrey back in 1964. Say what you will about Humphrey, but he had an extraordinary capacity to identify and seize the essential truth of a situation. During the floor debate of the Civil Rights Act, he observed: “It is difficult for most of us to comprehend the monstrous humiliations and inconveniences that racial discrimination imposes on our Negro fellow citizens...What is happening is not so much economics, even though it amounts to economic deprivation. It is not so much education, even though we know people have been denied education. What is happening is humiliation, the lack of a sense of dignity which has been imposed upon people.”
It is the reality of humiliation and the absence of dignity that are so hard to explain today. But this also tells me that, despite all the work that remains to be done, the central objectives that drove the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were achieved.
Thanks primarily to the excesses of Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, Bull Connor, the nation finally grasped the heinous evil of racial discrimination and segregation. Maybe it took 200 years, but between 1963 and 1964, a significant majority of Americans got it.
Popular support for fixing these wrongs erupted to the degree that almost every conservative Midwest Republican—politicians who had built careers opposing the expansion of federal power—voted to give the US Department of Justice authority tell restaurant and motel owners that refusing service to African Americans and other minorities would no longer be tolerated. And these same senators went even further in supporting federal authority to combat discrimination in employment. Who could have imagined such behavior?
This determination to attack directly the humiliations faced daily by millions of African Americans led the Senate down the path of legislative miracles, at least by today’s standards. The usual scattershot liberals developed a grand strategy, stuck to it, and outsmarted Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, the crafty leader of the Southern Democrats. Bipartisan collaboration to pass the bill was robust and real. The debate was conducted in a fair and accommodating manner, even when it assisted the “enemy,” the Southern Democrats. The limelight was shared by Humphrey, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, and Senator Everett Dirksen, the Minority Leader, who delivered the final votes needed to end the filibuster.
And, at the end of the day, all these miracles were possible because a clear majority of Americans had come to believe that “monstrous humiliations” and denials of personal dignity could no longer be tolerated as elements of American society. The legislation passed; it was signed into law; and it changed America.
That is why we celebrate it fifty years later.
Two good books about the Civil Rights Act:
- Todd Purdum, An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Henry Holt & Co., 2014
- Clay Risen,The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act, Bloomsbury Press, 2014
John G. Stewart was legislative director for Senator Hubert Humphrey when Humphrey was the floor manager of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He stayed with Humphrey from 1965 to 1969, when Humphrey was Vice President. He lived for 10 years on Capitol Hill and for 10 years in Chevy Chase DC. He now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with his wife, Nancy.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, while at the Georgetown waterfront with friends, I randomly encountered a fellow Antarctica marathoner, Bill Connor. Bill had just relocated to Washington from Hawaii as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Corps and was also there enjoying the rowing races. Both of us were wearing our "last marathon" shirts and immediately began to relive our glorious adventure to Antarctica.
In 2011, I decided to become a member of the "7 Continents Club”—a group of people who have completed marathons on each continent. The most difficult is the Antarctica Marathon, held on March 9 this year. It was my 17th marathon in six years, including races in Boston, New York, Washington, Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, Dubai, the Canary Islands, Dublin, Cork City, and Sydney. Approximately 440 runners have completed all seven continents, according to the Boston-based company Marathon Tours that organizes the Antarctica race—that’s fewer than have climbed Mount Everest.
My journey to Antarctica started in Buenos Aires, with the wedding of a close family friend alongside my oldest son, business meetings, asados (barbecues), training sessions with a local Buenos Aires running group (Gracias, Juan Guadalupe and Santiago!), and gatherings with the other Antarctica marathon runners. Besides Bill and myself, local Washingtonians included Mike Locke, an economist from U Street; Amir Arasta, a chiropractor from Adams Morgan; Connie Corbett, a marketing specialist from Germantown; and Yvette Ju, a physician from Olney.
More than 20 countries were represented in our group. There was the Canadian "iron couple" (they’ve completed 220 Ironmen between them), a Polish entrepreneur (who voiced strong opinions about Putin), "Marathon Man" from Australia (who completed 160 marathons on seven continents in just a year), our Mexican videographer, a Long Island mother of six, and a Norwegian businesswoman. There was also a Columbian healthcare businessman, a rugby player from New Zealand, a Chinese engineer, an Australian Olympic rower who won the women’s race, two moms from Texas, and doctors from India, Panama, California, and Indiana. It was an eclectic group to say the least.
We took a three-hour flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia—the largest city in the southernmost portion of our hemisphere—the city "at the bottom of the world." This area of Patagonia is scenic, with glaciers and mountains along a majestic harbor; it looks like Switzerland. After visiting the famous "prison museum" and eating delicious crab (better than Maryland's), we boarded our ship. The "Ioffe," named after a prominent Russian physicist, was to be our home for the two-day voyage over Drake's passage—one of the roughest crossings in the world.
Dreading the two-day trip more than the marathon itself, many of us wore motion-sickness patches. While the vast majority of runners experienced only fatigue with the patch, some still became ill and were confined to their cabins during the rough voyage. Fortunately, our emergency-room doctor, Alan, made regular "house calls" on all the decks. We had a friendly Russian crew that provided hearty meals, and we joked about heading directly to Russia after the race because of the Putin-Obama standoff. Presentations on marathon logistics, early explorers, ice melting/climate change, and wildlife helped pass the time.
Our first excursion after arriving in Antarctica was to Robert Island. We all boarded zodiacs—large motorized rafts—to traverse the choppy sea. Our "wetskins" (cold weather gear and boots), kept us from getting soaked during our trip to see elephant seals, fur seals, and chinstrap penguins. Thousands of penguins greeted us as we headed to shore, as the runners took more photos than DC tourists at Cherry Blossom time. It was a winter wilderness—a way to imagine earth before man arrived, as if we had been transported to another planet by the aptly named "First Expedition" group.
In my marathon running, I have always lived by the African proverb: "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." Fortunately, I met Suze, a petroleum engineer who lives in Houston but is originally from Bethesda and works on offshore oil platforms. She, annoyingly, had no motion sickness or fatigue. Suze and I have approximately the same marathon pace, so we decided to run together.
The race was held on King George Island (named after King George III). The island is protected as an Antarctic Specialty Managed Area under the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. Simply stated, no Power Bar wrappers whatsoever would be allowed on land during the race, and only one makeshift "port-a-potty" could be used. This was my first, and most likely last, marathon that involved leaving a ship on a zodiac to get to the course. We ran through several countries—that is, research stations near the race course belonging to Russia, Uruguay, China, and Chile. While this was billed as a marathon, we soon learned that it was more of an eco-challenge, adventure race, and Tough Mudder combined.
We raced on steep icy hills, across lengthy rock paths, through ankle-deep mud, and over streams that became rivers as the day wore on. An aggressive bird, the brown skua, tried to attack one runner's thick blond hair, while another made off with a water bottle. The temperature was near freezing but was much colder with the wind chill. At times we experienced freezing rain and sleet, so ski googles and ski masks came in handy. The only obstacles missing were a volcanic eruption and an earthquake! My polar vortex training in Washington proved invaluable.
An extraordinary group of runners from South Africa participated. Particularly memorable was the first blind runner to ever finish an Antarctica Marathon. Hein, blind since birth, was assisted by his guide, Nick ,who was helping him for the first time ever. (Hein's regular marathon sponsor, Mike, was injured.) Hein was raising funds for VisionTrust, which works to make the world more accessible to the disabled.
Another inspirational new friend was Sophia, a Vietnamese scientist from California, who had begun running marathons after 3 children and major weight gain. She was one of the best runners on board and is a member of Marathon Maniacs Sophia has run 89 marathons in four years. And then there was Richard, running in shorts with his daughter, Kathleen, from Arlington. Richard is in his 60s and has run hundreds of marathons; he’s on his fourth circle around the globe running marathons on all seven continents!
Some scientists from the research stations participated in the race, and the Chinese were particularly friendly supporters, providing snacks and water. We couldn't say the same about a van full of Russians who rudely leaned on their horn as we ran down a gravel road during the race.
Suze and I ran the marathon from start to finish. We enjoyed our conversation, took photos, and cheered on the runners as we passed each other going back and forth from the central transition area. With approximately six miles to go, Jay, an entrepreneur from North Dakota joined us. Then with four miles to go, Dave, a Canadian who lives in Bali, made our trio a quartet. Dave, Jay, and I were all on track to complete our 7 continents, so I urged us all to hold hands with a quarter of a mile to go, as I saw Dave start to falter.
As we crossed the finish line, Dave collapsed on his back in muddy water. Dr. Alan and another doctor from San Francisco were right there, fortunately, and we all carried Dave into the medical tent. Within hours, Dave was walking on board the ship although somewhat dazed. My nickname for him became "Lazarus" which everyone would call him for the remainder of the trip. It is worth noting that we were the only four people to finish the race together. Two runners who did not finish the race on land subsequently ran a full marathon on the ship's deck.
During the next two days in Antarctica, we were able to experience ocean kayaking, glacier hiking, snowball fights, a polar plunge, a "beach" party in the ship's bar, and a wedding officiated by the Russian captain. We saw many seals, whales, and penguins swimming through the icy waters. From the zodiacs we watched an avalanche, glaciers breaking into the sea, seals resting on icebergs, and arctic birds nesting on the side of a cliff. This all gave new meaning to the word "breathtaking."
Our journey back to Argentina from Antarctica was much smoother than the outbound voyage. We had all experienced the trip of a lifetime while developing lifelong friends. We had completed a marathon in Antarctica! I don't think any of us Washingtonians would ever complain about the weather or conditions on the day of the Marine Corps marathon ever again.
Joe Findaro is a lawyer/lobbyist in Washington, DC with Akerman LLP and a father of three who lives in Vienna. He will be moving to Georgetown this fall. His next marathon is in Chicago.
Fifty years ago, Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in as President and for the next five years lived with a war far away and protests close to home. Today his family and former aides are trying to remake him as a tormented dove who tried his best to end the Vietnam war.
His daughter Luci Baines Johnson recently told the New York Times: “Nobody wanted the war less than Lyndon Johnson,” adding, “No matter how hard he tried, he didn’t seem to be able to get out of that quagmire. Not only did he not get out of it in his lifetime, but his legacy indeed has the weight of the world on it.”
The Johnson effort is understandable, but it is built on fantasy. When LBJ took the oath of office, there were 19,000 American military in Vietnam. When he left office there were 500,000.
Someone ordered them there.
One person who really "wanted the war less” than LBJ was his Vice President, Hubert H. Humphrey. At Humphrey's first National Security Council meeting, he made the case for getting out of Vietnam. That was his last opportunity for a year. Because the Vice President is by statute a member of the NSC, Lyndon Johnson limited Vietnam discussion to other meetings—those to which Humphrey was not invited.
Humphrey became a Vice President without portfolio. He was silenced and demeaned in absentia. Johnson soon began delivering in Texan poetry an off-repeated line, “Ah got Hubert’s pecker in mah pocket.” Johnson found petty ways to show his anger, and his example was not lost on White House aides. Joseph Califano, one of today’s revisionist leaders but back then only in his mid-thirties and prematurely arrogant, once kept the Vice President waiting for 45 minutes after Humphrey arrived for a scheduled White House meeting.
Ultimately Humphrey was begrudgingly resurrected through the efforts of Lady Bird Johnson, who maintained her long friendship with Muriel Humphrey. Johnson sent Humphrey to Vietnam, and the Vice President became a quietly skeptical public cheerleader for Johnson policies.
When Johnson announced on March 31, 1968, that he would not seek a second term, whatever dove-like tendencies he held should have made him an advocate of Humphrey and at least accepting of some deviation from his hardline Vietnam policies. Without that, the mood of the country that drove him out of office would haunt Humphrey. But Johnson invited no private discussion with Humphrey, no wiggle room for any policy shift.
Humphrey was not alone in this treatment. Mike Mansfield, the Senate majority leader and a dove, told a friend that he never discussed Vietnam with Johnson because “LBJ doesn’t think it is useful to spend time on an issue where he is not going to change his mind.”
As the presidential nominating convention was about to begin at the end of August 1968, chaos was inevitable in Chicago. We knew what television would show. Senator Walter Mondale, close friend of Humphrey for 20 years and co-chair of the Humphrey for President Committee, called Mayor Richard Daley and suggested that the convention be moved to Miami—where the Republicans had held their convention—as the city would be prepared for another. When that suggestion was rejected, Mondale urged that some space be made available where protesters could gather and make their speeches. Daley said in dismissal, “We will give them every courtesy.”
A second imperative was a Democratic party peace plank. It did not require total repudiation of the war or an insult to Johnson. Humphrey set out to get one. Accepting suggestions and reservations, he found common ground with hawks and doves. He cleared his ideas with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, White House foreign policy advisor Walt Rostow, Charlie Murphy, a close outside advisor to the President, and with the Eugene McCarthy forces—although McCarthy remained not quite totally satisfied or cooperative.
Congressman Hale Boggs of Louisiana, a close friend of Johnson, showed up in the Humphrey convention suite to say that no deviation from the Johnson Vietnam policy would come out of the platform committee he chaired. Boggs dismissed what Humphrey reported about finding consensus. Boggs clearly spoke for the President.
What none of us knew was that President Johnson had decided he was ready to challenge Humphrey for the nomination. Johnson called Mayor Daley, a reluctant Humphrey supporter, asking two things: Could his helicopter land safely on the Hilton Hotel roof and did Daley think he could get enough votes to beat Humphrey? Daley, no structural engineer or national vote counter, said yes to both. The Secret Service said no. They couldn’t assure LBJ's safety on the roof or on the street. He finally gave it up.
But his minions were on the ground, put in place when Johnson still was likely to be the candidate. They ran the convention—from where we all would stay to what would be in the platform and who would be in the audience. Humphrey’s son-in-law stood in line with the public to get tickets for the family to attend the nominating session.
The Chicago convention, my fourth, was worse than we expected. Daley’s courtesy was later called a “police riot.” Protestors were beaten, jailed, and threatened by police swinging their horses’ back ends into crowds. Some protesters brought their anger into the hotels, often making a ride on an elevator into a misadventure of tension and fear.
All of that made my own job as Humphrey press secretary close to impossible. Press briefings could not be held in a normal way: in a room with podium, microphone, and seats. I briefed the press standing in a hallway surrounded by elevator doors opening and closing. On nomination day, I stood and shouted my information, answered shouted questions, taking a final question from a reporter I could not see. “Will Hubert take Lyndon as his vice presidential running mate tonight?” There was laughter and I said, “Lyndon who? And that’s off the record.” One reporter decided that, since I had instructed that my quip be kept off the record after I'd said it, he could file it. Unfortunately he was from the Associated Press.
When I got to Humphrey’s suite, he asked, “Did some son-of-a-bitch just ask ‘Whose Lyndon?’” I said, “You’ve got the right son-of-a-bitch but the wrong line.” He had just received a call from the LBJ Ranch from Arthur Krim, Hollywood mogul, New York financier, and our main fundraiser. He said if Humphrey had guys like me on the staff, he would not be raising another dollar. Humphrey told me he could hear the President breathing into a separate telephone.
The air was leaving our campaign as well. Humphrey finally decided he had to speak out, that if he remained silent on Vietnam, the protests would continue with shouts of “Dump the Hump” and signs that said “Killer of Babies.” No national campaign is easy, but this one was unrelentingly hard and almost hopeless. By the fall, Humphrey was 18 percentage points behind Richard Nixon in the polls, and there seemed no way up without some new policy on Vietnam.
At the end of September, Humphrey phoned Johnson as a courtesy from a television studio in Salt Lake City. He told the President he was going to call for stopping the bombing of North Vietnam. Johnson had few words. He said first: “I take it you are not asking for my advice.” He listened for a bit as Humphrey tried to explain what he intended to do then icily said, “You’re going to give the speech anyway. Thanks for calling, Hubert.” And he hung up.
Humphrey did not appease Johnson, but he did persuade many Americans. The signs along our campaign motorcades changed. They read, “If you mean it, we’re for you.” Shouts of anger turned into cheers of support. Humphrey said he could feel the difference. We came to the final week, ahead in one poll, almost even in others.
As we approached election day, Vietnam peace talks went on in Paris. President Johnson had softened his hard-line attitude, and there seemed hope for a change in policy leading to peace. But Anna Chennault, a Chinese charmer who had married an American World War II hero, was a major fundraiser for Nixon and assumed, or more likely was assigned, the task of preventing any peace agreement before the election.
Theodore White, the writer-chronicler of presidential elections, later wrote that Anna Chennault “had undertaken most energetically to sabotage (the peace talks). In contact with the Formosan, the South Korean and the South Vietnamese governments, she had begun early, by cable and telephone, to mobilize their resistance to the agreement—apparently implying that she spoke for the Nixon campaign.” The South Vietnamese President repudiated any peace agreements.
Humphrey, although he knew what was happening, would not say anything about Chennault's activities because the information was based on intelligence sources. Had Johnson informed him, given Humphrey a heads-up, we might have been able to speak out just enough to make a difference. But we heard nothing. I begged Humphrey to let me tell all of this to the press. I was certain that Americans of both parties would be outraged at what was a treasonous act by Nixon and that we would get the final boost we needed. I told him that if it rebounded against us, he could fire me as the unauthorized leaker.
Teddy White concluded: “Fully informed of the sabotage of the negotiations by our negotiators (secretly and without White House knowledge) and the recalcitrance of the Saigon government, Humphrey might have won the Presidency of the United States by making it the prime story of the last four days of the campaign. He was urged by several members of his staff to do so. And I know of no more essentially decent story in American politics than Humphrey’s reluctance to do so.” It was the final moment when Johnson could have helped elect Humphrey, and probably seen the Vietnam war end. He chose not to.
Lyndon Johnson was a good President, a great one in the eyes of some historians. But he could be arbitrary and mean. His treatment of Humphrey, on Vietnam and other matters, was not the mark of civility, much less greatness. Humphrey was not the first to suffer his wrath.
In 1960, Johnson’s close friend Jim Rowe sent him a letter. "I have not seen you pay one compliment, thank one person. I have seen you do nothing but yell at them....Maybe you do not know it—I do—the morale of your staff is awful. They are in tears, all of them, they are beginning to dislike you intensely. They cannot do anything right, they don't dare make a decision about where to hang your clothes even, and they bend their heads and wait for the blows to fall—like obdurate mules who know the blow is coming."
Rowe had a solution and suggestion: "One day a week, go up and down that plane and tell George Reedy and Bill Moyers and the stenographers...that you appreciate what they are doing for you….I have a feeling that at present you are caught between vanity...and a curious lack of self-confidence about your judgment of men." Then he laments, "This is probably the end of an old friendship. But somebody has to say these things. And I will say one more thing I didn't mean to say—lay off that booze."
Shutting up Vice President Humphrey after that first NSC meeting may well have resulted in thousands of American and millions of Vietnamese lives lost. The war dragged on, and the country endured turmoil and protest on the streets, on campuses, even in churches. It brought us Richard Nixon and Watergate. Had Humphrey been permitted to speak, the course of the war might well have been different. Had his voice been heard and his ideas considered, there would be no need today to remake Johnson into something he wasn’t. Lyndon Johnson never flew on the wings of a tormented dove.
Norman Sherman was Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey's press secretary and editor of Humphrey's autobiography, The Education of a Public Man. He spent many years living in Chevy Chase.
I thought I was unconventional, cutting edge, a rebel. Boy was I wrong.
When I came out of the closet and then had children with my partner, I worried about the stigma. But I did sort of feel like I was avant-garde—or at least like I had an atypical family composition. When I started talking about my lifelong struggle with depression and hospitalizations, I thought for sure I’d be shunned and thought incompetent or at least weird. And I really thought my Adult Protective Services (APS) job—where I investigate and manage cases dealing with vulnerable adults who have been abused, neglected, or exploited—was off the beaten path.
But thanks to the progressive tendencies of the Maryland community in which I live, my identity as a lesbian/APS social worker/mom with mental illness has become so dreadfully…normal.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m happy that same-sex marriage is both accepted and legal. I can now pay taxes in a normal way, and my wife (thank you, SCOTUS) can make medical decisions for me. There’s far less stigma and more acceptance of depression, which seems to be a popular thing to have these days. The number of people with the same debilitating illness I have means that I can speak more openly about it. And TV shows like Hoarders and news stories about older folks getting taken advantage of have made even my APS job more familiar.
So my life is conventional. Regular. Boring. And my biggest excitement is the occasional opportunity to communicate with real, live adults over a quick dinner outside of work and away from my children. Although I have not resorted to being a soccer mom (my kids don’t like soccer) or wearing an appliqued kitten in a basket on a soft, pink sweatshirt, I am an average mom around here.
I’m the new Stepford wife—the suburban, liberal, sometimes crazy, lesbian kind. So what am I to do for a mid-life crisis? Do I have to become a straight, conservative PTA mom to rebel?
I'm on a serious search for something new, something different, something rebellious, and something meaningful and exciting to do with my life—inexpensive or free, please. So I've checked out my options and come up with some possibilities.
Option 1: Monster-Truck Driver. I can hear the crowd roar as I'm high in the air, revving my engine at the top of the vehicular food chain—intimidated by nothing. I maneuver my stick, in control of a huge beast that can crush piddly full-size SUVs. Vroom Vroom. But it does all sound a bit phallic—now I see why it is predominately a male sport. I, of course, would paint a rainbow with Rosie the Riveter proudly We-Can-Do-It’ing on the side of the truck, and name my truck something like, “Kick Ass Amazon Estrogen Warrior.”
I start watching monster truck videos. The appeal is waning. I think driving over cars might feel even worse than driving over incredibly big potholes and speed bumps. My butt hurts just thinking about it, and I know I’d definitely need to sit on a pillow—maybe one of those post-hemorrhoid-surgery doughnuts could be Velcroed to the seat. I’d put a macho flannel pillowcase with big trucks on it, but somehow I think no cover could make a hemorrhoid pillow macho enough for a monster-truck driver.
I wonder if I could get a monster truck with sliding side doors like my minivan and car seats, so my kids could easily ride along. I also wonder what my neighbors will say if I parked it in front of the house. I’m not quite sure how I'd manage drive-thrus or get in and out of the truck. A blow-up ladder? A Hoyer lift? A trampoline?
I check the DMV website to find out how to obtain a CDL license, hoping that the ability to spell CDL is all that's required. I also check out the Monster Truck Racing Association website. I scope out the tan, lithe, manly men on the site, and I realize that there's a small possibility I won't fit in. And apparently they do not give a membership discount to social workers.
Option 2: High-Octane Crafter. I do not have enough time, events in my life, sense of paper placement, or highlights in my hair, to be a good scrapbooker. So I look into new types of funky crafts. A kind of craft not to be found at a conventional craft store. Because I am no longer conventional, dammit.
Glassblowing classes at Glen Echo look fun. With long metal poles, fire, and artistry, it seems to be sort of a Cirque-Du-Soleil-meets-visual-art thing. But as I look through the pictures of people blowing glass, I notice that none of them look intrinsically happy. And that is really what I am searching for. That, and a cool uniform.
So I check out metal sculpting and welding—where fire and cool apparel meet. I could look like a Monty Python knight while brandishing a fire weapon and producing art. I could be a new anti-super hero artist chick: Who is that woman behind the mask? It is the mistress, Rodin-Katz, sculptor of evil, creator of all things non-mundane. With her powerful hands, she crushes scrap-bookers and PTA flyers into usable pieces of metal for the greater good.
But it turns out all local metal sculpting classes require enrolling in a whole course of study at a community college. So Rodin-Katz will have to rise another day. Despite knowing this, I have vivid dreams at night of welders doing interpretative modern dance and synchronized swimming wearing rustproofed welding masks. Obscure rebellion clearly lives on in my unconscious.
Option 3: Start a New Career—Law School. I swear there are more lawyers around here than streets, but I convince myself I would be different from them. I convince myself that I would be a tattooed, cool public defender or legal-aid attorney. But then I remember: Oh yeah, I despise public speaking. My voice shakes so severely that, after every oral report or presentation I've ever given, someone next to me puts her hand on my shoulder and flashes a patronizing smile saying: “You did just fine.”
Although they say to envision everyone in the audience naked, I think that's rude, so I imagine everyone in layers and parkas so they don’t feel so cold. Even with a room full of down-clad, wool-socked and -sweatered audience members, I still sound like a blithering idiot. This public speaking thing may be a deal-breaker for lawyering and law school. Then there are the years of no income and the additional student-loan debt to think about.
Option 4: Learn and work abroad. I dream about applying for a Fulbright scholarship and taking either one kid or the whole family abroad with me. Then I remember how exhausting it is just taking a kid on the metro somewhere local. Two seconds after we find seats, I hear the inevitable: "I have to go potty. I don’t want to go to DC." Then louder: "Why does that scary man look so fat and ugly?" And (louder still):"Do all girls have vaginas? Do I still have the chicken pox? I think I just peed."
What makes me think I could help a child or two adjust to a whole new culture? Or even make it through a multi-hour flight? How could we break up our family for any length of time? And as much as school is appealing, do I really need to add homework to my list of responsibilities? (Remember, Liat, that sigh of relief you took after graduate school, when you were no longer obligated to do homework? You’re too old to do that shit again.)
Option 5: Get a Tattoo. This is a great idea—artistic expression, honoring my body as a canvas, and a definite rebel factor. Except I keep thinking of all those relatives of mine who were forced to have numbers tattooed on their arms. Would a tattoo be a big slap in the face to their memories? And with my luck, I’d probably have a misspelled word forever on my body (Like “Liar” instead of “Liat”). And because of Jewish law, I wouldn't be able to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Though, would I notice? The last straw: A conventional-looking me with a rebellious tattoo might just be, well, stupid.
Option 6: Volunteer. I make a couple of calls looking into volunteering to roam the city streets at night to provide support and resources to “sex workers.” (The term “sex workers” sounds so much less rebellious than prostitutes—almost like an office job. Postal workers only more sane.) The cover of darkness thing makes the volunteering sound so cool. The social worker in me says “sex workers” are troubled souls with unresolved abuse issues in need of resources that will help them leave the life.
But part of me is jealous, and I romanticize a clearly difficult existence—I tell myself they are leading the ultimate rebellious life. They are providing a fantasy for men that want them. I fear that helping sex workers on the street in DC might be too enticing. I can see my first conversation with a fictional prostitute I've named Ruby Starlet: "You make how much per hour?" Ruby probably doesn't have dental insurance, but I am a night owl in need of more money, so maybe I could do this. Unfortunately I look terrible in hot pink spandex, and I fall over in high heels.
Option 7: Change my appearance through a new wardrobe. Nothing seems flattering when I feel fat. And a regular fashion makeover won’t do if I want to be unconventional. So I move beyond the standard of beauty for women into a wardrobe of rebellious self-expression, and this one requires no particular pant size. I plan my wardrobe carefully. I'll wear the pink spandex from the sex-worker idea as a tasteful scarf. And I'll work with my young girls to create a spectacular dress from rhinestone-studded tricolored rotini. I'll call it "Pastabulous." In an ode to the plaguing social ill of bulimia, I will fashion overalls from an air-sickness bag. And in an attempt to signify the struggle of the working class and my own struggles, I'll stitch a skirt of overdue bills, to be accented with a Prozac necklace. Such a fine wardrobe, except that it's all too ridiculous, even for me. Noodles will have to stay on the dinner menu.
The option I finally choose is Option 8: Write about my options in life, wax poetic about my dreams in therapy, be happy with what I've got, and get a new kitten. Her name is Carly, and she came to us from the shelter with ringworm, which she gladly shared. As a result my whole family now has matching round tattoos. Perhaps I’m a rebel after all.
The moderator gives us a nod, and we walk in unison along the edge of the deep end. “Aaaaaand stop!” comes a call from the rear. We pivot to face the pool and bend and stretch into formation, surrounding our seven-person clump with a sunburst of jazz hands. I feel hundreds of eyes watching us as we wait for the music, smiling in our silver-and-pink swimsuits and glittery eyeliner.
A whistle blows, and “Boogie Shoes” by KC and the Sunshine Band explodes from the loudspeakers. We silently count the beats in our heads. I dive on my turn, my teammates fast on my heels, and feel a twinge of pride as my skin breaks the cool surface of the water. My fear of plunging in head-first is one I've been working hard to overcome.
The mention of synchronized swimming often calls to mind Hollywood images of the demure toe-pointing and toothpaste smile of Esther Williams or of wiry Olympic athletes with gelled hair and unfortunate eye makeup. For me, as I dive into the water at my second national synchronized-swimming competition, I think of how the sport has challenged my inhibitions and introduced me to a side of myself that I was surprised to meet.
Although I've always loved being in the water, before I signed up for a synchronized-swimming class in Rockville, I had never learned to dive—which seemed telling of a larger resistance in my life to letting loose, taking risks, and plunging in. As a thirty-something with no big plans for personal transformation on my horizon, I figured it was all downhill from there. An internal ticking clock reminded me constantly that I was “too old for short shorts,” as my mother would say. I had grown most comfortable in swimsuits of the skirted variety and had started to wonder if my coworker was right when she said there are no good surprises after 30.
Each week, though, when I slipped into the water for class, I felt stronger and sexier—a chimeric morphing of a mermaid and Michael Phelps. The day I swam the length of the pool underwater on a single breath, I felt like I could accomplish anything. After a semester, my classmates encouraged me to join the DC-area synchronized swimming team. I looked for excuses: I wasn’t good enough. I was too busy. Worst of all, I would have to perform in a swimsuit! But a nagging part of me wanted to know if I could make it. So after weeks of deliberation, I went to a practice.
At the pool, I was greeted by a group of energetic, latex-capped women aged 24 to 72. I joined them in the deep end and, at their urging, demonstrated what I had learned—a basic scull, a back layout, a splashy, sinking attempt at raising one pointed leg toward the ceiling. Despite being years ahead of me in their skills, the women on the team graciously offered pointers and encouraged me to keep practicing. Afterwards, everyone headed to the communal shower, and I slunk off to change by myself.
I came back the next week and then the next, the camaraderie and the challenge satisfying needs so submerged I hadn’t even realized they were there. At times, I thought the sport would defeat me—if not with its dizzying upside-down spins then surely the dangerously long stretches between gasps of air. For months I left the four-hour practices with quivering legs and an appetite previously seen only on Animal Planet.
Yet as I pushed my body to its limits, it responded by becoming harder and leaner; my lungs stretched to meet the new demands. As my body changed, something inside me shifted as well. I took to wearing audaciously short shorts. Thanks to my teammates, I learned to dive and conquered my fear of the communal shower. I even bid a public farewell to my skirted granny suit at a nude beach.
But what matters more than feeling good in my skin is that I discovered a side of myself I didn't know was there—a side that is strong and capable of taking a chance and diving in. Instead of being on the cusp of inevitable decline, I realize I am in charge of my own journey. There are good surprises after thirty.
Vicki Valosik is a Silver Spring-based writer, program officer, and aquaphile. She has written previously for Washingtonian, as well as for TheAtlantic.com, American Scholar, Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Post Magazine, and Huffington Post, among others. Find her on Twitter or at vickivalosik.net.
Last spring, a small observance of Earth Day—that annual declaration and celebration of the sanctity of the Earth—took place at a senior-living community in Tenleytown, Northwest DC, where I live. Our little environmental teach-in was a success, with three invited speakers and good crowds that captured the spirit of the first Earth Day 43 years earlier. As the one who suggested the commemoration, I took satisfaction in revisiting a journey begun when I played a part in that initial launch—before mental illness derailed my career and my life.
I clearly remember the words a US senator said to me in early September 1969: “See what you can do about environmental teach-ins on college campuses around the country...all on the same day next spring.” My boss was Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin democrat and a powerful figure in Congress. From his suite in the Russell Senate Office Building, there was a view of that corridor of world power, Pennsylvania Avenue. I was Nelson’s legislative director, managing all things related to the environment, on which he was building a national reputation.
I would lead the organization of what became Earth Day. Some 20-million people turned out for the first observance the following spring—April 22, 1970—in a massive, peaceful protest against the pollution of our planet. For me, it was a fateful assignment, an opportunity to reach a pinnacle in my young career in Washington and to prove to myself and the world that I was special. I had hungered to do that since childhood, when my parents never gave me much of a sense of self worth.
Environmentalism, though, inspired me. It was no accident that I was in charge of environmental matters for Senator Nelson’s office. I had become interested years earlier, when I saw the bulldozing of the woods and rivers near my home in Georgia. As a reporter in 1967, I started the first environment beat for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. A series I wrote about environmental degradation in Minnesota was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Earth Day would be a culmination of my past work and an achievement of greater magnitude.
The senator’s directive in hand, I bolted into a four-month sprint of feverish, 18-hour workdays. I tapped inner resources of energy and creativity that I didn't know I had. In the headiest moments, I felt as if I had been hit by a lightning bolt of genius. My strategies, plans, and decisions seemed golden. I had no fear, and I thought anything was possible. It was time: I would convince everyone that I counted, that I was destined for greatness.
Beginning in September, I was everywhere. Before the convenience of the internet, I was recruiting and organizing a committee to steer the teach-in, setting up a tax-exempt organization, raising seed funds, and helping to recruit a staff director for the day when the rapidly growing project would be too unwieldy to be run out of the senator's office. Telephones rang constantly, inquiring visitors poured in. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to know about the teach-in. I remember a secretary looking at me in open-mouthed wonder as I talked back and forth between two telephone receivers.
My most important contribution, however, was to articulate a coherent vision for Senator Nelson’s inspired idea—that the nation, length and breadth, could be committed to environmental protection. Now was the time for action, we believed, and our mass environmental teach-ins would get the ball rolling.
I crafted a pitch to entice the environmental reporters of the nation’s news media to rally around the idea. Almost in concert, the three most important outlets of the day—Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times—picked up the story. Their articles, supplemented by other coverage across the US, established the viability of what soon was to be called Earth Day. The project was launched. I was 31.
In my euphoria during the Earth Day launch, I was blind to the possibility of any obstacles. No problem was unsolvable; nothing could slow me down. But on December 4, 1969, four words interrupted my speeding life and, along with certain genetic predispositions, changed it forever. “John, I feel faint,” my mother said, raising her hand to her forehead. Mother, in the passenger seat of the car I was driving, was having a heart attack. The thin walls of her ailing heart were giving way.
Not knowing CPR, I did the only thing I could, which was to get her to the hospital. Her doctor later told me her heart was too far gone. Aware that I had witnessed Mother’s traumatic death, he said: “You should see a psychiatrist after this.”
I reached home late and wrote a poem through tears: "Momma died tonight./Momma died and took my soul away./Momma./Oh, Momma./Momma died tonight."
That was all the time I could spare to grieve. The next day, I was back in the senator's office. Earth Day deadlines were rushing toward me, and I attacked the project with more energy than ever. A psychiatrist suggested later that, perhaps, after being unable to save my mother, I became doubly committed to saving Mother Earth.
Though I didn't realize it, my work performance declined rapidly after that day. The magic was gone. A fatal obstacle had been met. By Mother’s sputtering heart, I was brought down into the real world—and in the shadows of my mind, a genetic-borne illness was awakened.
In the years since I wrote the poem, people have asked me what “Momma Died Tonight” was about. It wasn't about my real mother—who didn't particularly love or support me and who physically and emotionally abused me at times—it was about the mother I longed for, one who gave me consistent caring and affection. That fantasy mother was the unreal love of my life, and when my actual mother died, my hope that she might become the caring, loving woman I imagined died, too.
That may help explain why December 4 put the brakes on my four-month Earth Day joyride and started a 40-year hell. I was becoming ill, no longer capable of being the star performer to whom my peers had become accustomed. Yet I denied the sad changes taking root in my brain.
The Downward Slide
The first unmistakable sign that my magic touch had faded was the poor “State of the Environment” speech I wrote for Senator Nelson in January 1970. It was billed as a national speech by a Democratic standard bearer for environmental protection, so expectations in Washington were high. Nelson’s political goal was to preempt President Nixon’s looming State of the Union address—expected to focus, opportunistically, on the environment because of the country's burgeoning concern about the issue. But our speech was a miss. The news media yawned, then paid rapt attention when President Nixon claimed the issue a few weeks later. Before the year was out, Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order.
Instead of seeing the greater good in the outcome, I felt responsible for a fumbled political opportunity. Shortly afterward, another speech I drafted unleashed the ire of the senator's axe man, an administrative assistant whose job it was to criticize, bully, and even tyrannize staffers with whom the senator was unhappy. The AA showed up at my desk one day, my draft in hand, “This is no good,” he said, launching a scathing critique. I was floored.
Burned by his criticism, I responded in a manner that has caused me harrowing difficulties over the years—though it has ultimately helped me survive as well. I rebelled, stubbornly, not by improving my performance, but by engaging in hand-to-hand office combat. I launched a barrage of internal memoranda attacking the senator and his AA for using the senatorial offices in the Capitol and his Wisconsin staff for campaign duties—a common ethical transgression among senators back then and an obvious target for an angry young man.
After my uprising, I was relegated to writing mundane press releases about the teach-in drive, while Senator Nelson gave a new star, Denis Hayes, the job of managing the rollout. (By that time, the Earth Day project had grown too big for the senator’s office; Hayes operated from a downtown office financed by contributions from the United Auto Workers.) The AA later moved me to a no-duties staff position on a Senate subcommittee on poverty. Late in 1974, I was simply let go, my contribution to Earth Day forgotten, bereft of others’ sympathy or curiosity about whether something internally might be wrong. Fired.