To The French On Bastille Day! We Are All The People

 

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

 

When our new president swore on two bibles he would “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” a revolution stirred in my heart.

As a New York City Democrat who loves her conservative Hoosier family, I wanted to hold him to his promise without breaking ties. First, I needed to hear my thoughts.

On Inauguration Day, I visited the New York Public Library’s main branch on Fifth Avenue. Desperate to quell anxiety exacerbated by fake news and social media, I entered the great hush of the Rose Main Reading Room, known to many for its role in Ghostbusters.

By chance, I discovered artist Morgan O’Hara and a few of her companions vigorously scribbling at a long table. Their sign announced they would stay until closing time to handcopy the U.S. Constitution, the oldest written and continuously used governing constitution in the world that is more than 229 years old.

Smiling, I accepted the offer of paper and a marker from O’Hara’s stash of supplies. This was exactly what I needed, a patriotic reminder of a common set of values. I settled into a heavy wooden chair, feeling goosebumps creep up my neck.

As I re-penned “We the People,” I felt calm. My 7th grade teacher made my class memorize the Preamble in the 1980s. I imagined her low voice meld each syllable into a poem. Now I sensed “the Blessings of Liberty” as a fierce, fragile organism. Warmth moved into my hands and feet. My breath deepened.

When I checked my phone, verbal warfare invaded my cell phone. I watched in horror as a New England acquaintance started a Facebook pile-on. “Wash out your uneducated hick mouth and go back to Arkansas,” he typed to the stranger. Fans lobbed onto the post, forgetting that an actual human being was being torn apart. But the Constitution grounded me with its inclination toward fairness. Without thinking, I switched from print to cursive, surprised I still knew how to form the letters. To my relief, I found no mention of political parties, so toxic during the 2016 campaign.

The next day at the New York Women’s March, fear of crowds made me a pathetic protester. I emailed O’Hara, the conceptual artist I met at the library, to understand why I preferred her impromptu gathering to a mass demonstration. “Don’t make me out to be some hero,” said O’Hara, 76, who saw her event as a visual project, a way to return to basics and protest in silence. While she did not finish after six hours—predicting 14 for the whole task—the physical effort allowed her to sense how much tension went into making our laws.

Most of the Framers were wealthy. Many owned slaves. All were white men. Yet nearly everyone played a role in the Revolutionary War with more to lose than many of us with our smartphones and double lattes. Despite privileges, they were prepared to sacrifice everything to form a republic.

Centuries later, I imagined Founding Fathers could embrace feminists like my pal Liz, a civil rights and peace activist since the 1960s. Liz reminded me that the First Amendment grants five freedoms, including “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” But she went a step further. “We have to respect our enemies,” said Liz, an admirer of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. “Otherwise, it’s just a mob.”

Respect requires empathy. To cultivate gentleness, I copied passages before bed, moving the language through my bloodstream like a prayer. Article I, Section 8 granted powers to Congress and shared similarities to the book of Genesis. Each line was a creation: post offices, a standard of weights and measures, the production of money and the ability to declare war and to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.”

My jaw tightened as I thought of my new president’s executive orders. But as I spent more time with the Constitution, I thought its language modeled a level head for civil discourse. I was moved particularly by the 19th Amendment stating no one should be denied voting rights “on account of sex.” Ratified in 1920, the amendment and its gender-inclusive wording felt especially fresh.

“Copying the Constitution is different from reading it,” said my library buddy, Ana, an American citizen originally from Romania. “When you see a road from the plane, you don’t see the pebbles.”

Curious about the details, I traveled to Washington, D.C., specifically to visit founding documents at the National Archives. “Take a close look at the first page,” a guard told me as I approached the Constitution. “Can you see a mistake?” To my amazement, I found an omission, a line that had been scraped and possibly covered with candlewax. Then he pointed out a childish error on the fourth and final signature page—“Pensylvania” spelled with one “n”—scrawled out by Alexander Hamilton, the man whose name would launch a smash Broadway musical. I was in love.  

So was my father as I described my studies. Instead of arguing about Trump—an endless activity—we met up for a family vacation in Philadelphia, birthplace of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Infused with the Spirit of ‘76, we strolled through museums and chatted with costumed actors portraying Betsy Ross and Thomas Jefferson. At the National Constitution Center, we paused at a video of a naturalization ceremony. Like couples taking marriage vows, these brave new citizens pledged the Oath of Allegiance, swearing to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, “foreign and domestic.” When the camera zoomed in on individual faces, Dad and I stifled tears.

As a natural-born American, I took my freedoms for granted. But by copying my blessings each night with my right hand, I drew a pact with God—binding me to country, family and fellow patriots, however they voted.

Forty-five days into the Trump administration, I finished the last sentence of the 27th Amendment, the final law regarding congressional pay cycles. I was now a re-Framer with my own 43-page document. When stapled together end to end, the yellow legal paper trailed from my front door to my bed.

Then I started all over again with a fresh piece of paper, beginning with “We the People.”

[This article first appeared in the New York Observer.]

Gearing Up For Tonight’s Debate, Quelling Feelings Of Helplessness

Judge Robert Katzmann presides over the largest naturalization ceremony in Ellis’ Island’s history. Photo: Sasha Maslov for Observer

Judge Robert Katzmann presides over the largest naturalization ceremony in Ellis’ Island’s history. Photo: Sasha Maslov for Observer

On Citizenship Day, I had the opportunity to report on Ellis Island’s largest naturalization ceremony, what organizers told me was the Super Bowl of Citizenship. Timed perfectly to the centennial of the National Park Service and the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, this historic swearing-in was coordinated with two simultaneous events at the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials in Washington D.C. During the week-long celebration at other national monuments, 38,000 new citizens would likewise pledge themselves “to perform works of national importance,” a phrase unknown to many life-long Americans like myself whose roots are not Native American.

The ceremony was moving. When I re-played my recordings, I wept as 298 new citizens recited the Oath of Allegiance in the Great Hall. If you’re a garden-variety American and occasional Walmart shopper like me, you might want to bone up on the Oath before tonight’s debate. Here it is:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.

I got this story idea by attending smaller ceremonies each Friday at a downtown courthouse. Over and over, I was struck at how well new citizens knew our Constitution and geography. In a time when 10 percent of college graduates believe Judge Judy is a Supreme Court Justice, I wanted to know what it’s like to consciously choose the United States over another land. In my visits to a Lower Manhattan court, I learned about the ceremony on Ellis Island. Excitedly, I pitched this article to the New York Observer, a paper owned by Trump’s son-in-law, whose deputy editor said “yes” and assigned an amazing photographer. Together, we followed several new citizens from the time they got on the ferry to the moment they held official papers.

It was humbling.

Immigration will likely be a hot topic tonight in the presidential debate. I can’t control November’s outcome. But I can know more about my country. And I can learn more about the systems that govern this great nation. I started by ordering a pocket Constitution. And by putting a copy of the Oath of Allegiance on my living room mirror.

Here are some of my own pics:

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It’s The Super Bowl Of Naturalizations!

Judge Robert Katzmann presides over the largest naturalization ceremony in Ellis’ Island’s history. Photo: Sasha Maslov for Observer

When taxi driver Richard Valdez boarded a ferry to Ellis Island last Friday, he filed past scores of tourists for what appeared to be a VIP wedding. As one of 298 candidates representing 53 countries, Valdez would soon participate in the Super Bowl of naturalization ceremonies, the largest in the island’s history.

A native of the Dominican Republic, Valdez, 26, relished postcard views of New York Harbor under a cyan sky. Tall and athletic, he wore a navy sports jacket with brown elbow patches. To quicken his long commute from the Bronx, he brought Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez’ novel about love at first sight. Like many on the ferry, Valdez came to the United States for better opportunities.

Unlike most other new citizens, he stood alone. His grandmother back home could not witness the day when he pledged himself “to perform work of national importance.” In a few hours, he would be an American with the responsibility of jury duty and the right to vote in a heated presidential election.

Richard Valdez on the day he became an American citizen.

Nearby, Verna Genus, 66, who hailed from Jamaica, put Betsy Ross to shame in a white jacket, blue top, red lace skirt and crimson heels.

“I’m like the flag,” she remarked. With her braids piled high, she rattled off answers from her citizenship test in a heavy Caribbean
accent: “There are tree branches of government…The Speaker of the House is Paul Ryan.” Her son, Kirk Genus, 38, would also be sworn in. “I have never voted in my entire life, and I feel great,” said Kirk, who supports Hillary Clinton. Together, mother and son strode toward registration tables in the Great Hall, the cathedral-like space that once processed 5,000 immigrants a day.

This setting, with its relics and ghosts, moved Robert Katzmann, chief judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. His Russian grandmother came through Ellis Island.

“I admire new citizens,” Katzmann said before presiding over the ceremony. “I like seeing the joy on the faces. Witnessing the tears of their family members is always emotional. I think of it in terms of my own forebearers and their stories of sacrifice, service and patriotism.”

As the son of a refugee from Nazi Germany, Katzmann helped found Immigrant Justice Corps, a program providing legal assistance to non-citizens fighting deportation. Today, an IJC client would be sworn in as a citizen, a victory for the nonprofit organization.

After a presentation of colors and the National Anthem, candidates rose when they heard their various homelands announced. Among the first to stand at attention was Xinjie Quan, 24, a member of the U.S. Army National Guard, who emigrated from China and wore military fatigues. When the emcee announced the Dominican Republic, a large contingent moved to its feet—cheers ricocheting off the high, vaulted ceiling. Valdez was among them, raising his right hand.

I have no doubt that the spirit of liberty will thrive with you as citizens,” Katzmann told the beaming crowd. “To become a citizen, you passed every test. And as polls show, you know more about our Constitution and government than most native-born Americans. Because of your personal histories, you have a special feeling for freedom…You will keep this country great. You will make it better as you assume the responsibility of citizenship.”

After the ceremony, Verna Genus continued sharing a stream of impressive trivia from her citizenship studies, even after she and her son held their official paperwork to secure them to U.S. soil. “There are 13 original colonies,” she shouted. “And the longest rivers are the Missouri and the Mississippi.”

Valdez had fewer words. “I feel like an American now,” he said.

This article first appeared in the New York Observer.

E.B. White’s “Here Is New York” Classifies City, Future 9/11

images-1Bill De Blasio described his “Tale of Two Cities” during his successful election campaign. E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web, believed there were three. Here is a selection of White’s beautiful essay (1948), especially appropriate on 9/11:

There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born there, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size, its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter–the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these trembling cities the greatest is the last–the city of final destination, the city that is a goal.

It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness, natives give it solidity and continuity, but the settlers give it passion. And whether it is a farmer arriving from a small town in Mississippi to escape the indignity of being observed by her neighbors, or a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart, it makes no difference: each embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love, each absorbs New York with the fresh yes of an adventurer, each generates heat and light to dwarf the Consolidated Edison Company…

The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now; in the sounds of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest editions.

All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.”

9/11 Stories: Rabbi Janise Poticha

Rabbi Janise Poticha holding the boots she wore on 9/11. Photo by Rick Wenner of The Observer.

Rabbi Janise Poticha holding the boots she wore on 9/11. Photo, Rick Wenner

“September 11 is still part of my life, but I don’t make it my life,” said Rabbi Janise Poticha, 63, the other day at a bustling diner near her Upper West Side apartment. “I expected to be a ‘pulpit rabbi’: to educate people, marry them, bury the dead and grieve with mourners,” she continued, her brown eyes a few shades darker than her cup of decaf. Her silver-streaked hair framed a tanned, youthful face. “Nobody ever thought somebody would hijack two airplanes and fly them into the most identifiable buildings in America.”

On the morning of 9/11, her doorman informed her that a plane hit the North Tower, probably a small aircraft gone off course. She thought little of it and set off for a meeting across town with the Archdiocese of New York. By the time she arrived, Flight 175 had crashed into the South Tower.

For the next four days, Poticha, who had EMT training, stayed around Ground Zero organizing triage stations. She placed the dead into body bags with first responders of all faiths. When a distraught firefighter noticed her kippah and chaplain vest, he asked if she would pray with him. “I said, ‘I’m Jewish, but we can pray together.’ We simply held hands and talked.”

More than 800 clergy mobilized after the 9/11 attacks—the largest multifaith chaplaincy effort in United States history.

“I felt compelled to be there, but I had to remember the high holy days were coming,” recalled Poticha, who has served as rabbi at Temple Sinai of Massapequa since 1998. “I had to take care of my congregation. On my last night as a responding chaplain, a construction worker gave me a ride home in his truck. It was 4 a.m. The moon was so bright. Looking up, I thought, ‘Things are still right in the world.’ The sun would rise in a few hours, and the moon would set. The organic sequence was still in place.”

Today, Poticha serves as president of Disaster Chaplaincy Services (DCS), a nonprofit that provides spiritual assistance in emergencies.

DCS provides pastoral support not just after tragedies but also during landmark occasions, such as the opening of the National September 11 Memorial Museum in 2014. In the museum’s first week, volunteer chaplains worked in shifts to care for survivors, family members and first responders who had a sneak peek of the site. “One man, a construction worker, saw his hat and pick in a glass case in the historical exhibition,” she said. “He had donated the items, but he didn’t know if they would be [displayed]. He broke into tears in my arms,” she said with a sigh. “There was a lot of that.”Ann Votaw for The New York Observer

PsychoBarn Is Home In NYC

Psycho HouseCornelia Parker’s site-specific sculpture, “Transitional Object (PsychoBarn),” is strangely at home on the Met’s rooftop garden, high above Central Park. I recently watched the sunset while leaning against the PscyhoBarn’s roped-off porch. Sipping beer and chewing expensive chips, I noted — once again — that New York is one weird city, especially at dawn or dusk when subterranean worlds collide with the respectable daytime veneer. Parker expertly caught the shadowy mood with her installation inspired by the Bates’ family home, the classic American red barn, and by the lonely paintings of Edward Hopper.

I just happen to be reading The Stand these days, a perfect summer epic about a world-wide pandemic. As a red sun flared through the trees and pleasant buildings of the Upper West Side, I thought of Rita Blakemoor and Larry Underwood stepping over dead bodies in the Lincoln Tunnel during a hail storm.

Like Parker, Stephen King knows a thing or two about fear.

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Dirty Dancing Catskills

unnamedOwning a 1940s typewriter has made me a collector of antique stationery, the best frame for an IRL letter in inky font. On eBay, I stumbled upon a lot of five blank letterheads from The Concord, an old resort in the Catskills that featured stars like Judy Garland and Buddy Hackett. As the jewel of the Borscht Belt, The Concord was the largest, most lavish resort in the area, complete with a kosher menu for a mostly Jewish clientele.

As I typed the above paragraph, an older neighbor called to check on me in this heat. “God is well and in charge,” she said as soon I answered. I asked if she ever stayed at The Concord.

“Of course, honey,” she said. “Everyone went to The Concord. I stayed there once for five days when I was pregnant. We had to have a different outfit for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It was wonderful. That was when I was a rip.”

If you’re having a hard time picturing this, imagine the set of Dirty Dancing, a composite of these fabulous upstate resorts that included Grossingers, Kutcher’s, and The Nevele. Remember one of the last scenes of the film, when Max Kellerman acknowledges the end of an era? Before the last dance, Kellerman says:

You think the kids want to come take foxtrot lessons with their parents? Trips to Europe. That’s what the kids want. Twenty three countries in three days. It feels like it’s all slipping away.”

In the late 1990s, I landed my first professional dance job in one of these fabled resorts. I never knew which one. The gig fell through a few weeks later. I ended up dancing on a small cruise ship in the North Atlantic. I always wondered about The Concord, which closed in 1998, the time my upstate job fell through. Like so many other entertainers, I could have cut my teeth in the Catskills.

If You Meet The Buddha On The Road, Google Him First

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After YogaCity NYC’s “Abuse of Power” panel at Yoga Union, I am chewing an interesting concept, brought up during the Q&A .

“Do we need to do background checks on our teachers?” a woman asked. Her question prompted “ohs” and “huhs” in the audience.

My answer to that — as a person who has had negative adventures in dating, kayaking, and yoga — is yes. While background checks may not be available, we do have google.

Google is Promethean fire on a smartphone. Few people use it the way they should. Let’s say I want to look up a teacher to see if he is an admitted sex addict at a prominent studio. (I’m not naming names, but I am using a real scenario.) I enter this teacher’s name into the search bar and voila, the creepy headlines appear in the second entry.

Let’s try another respected spiritual leader, the late Ashtanga master Pattabhi Jois, affectionately referred to by his students as Guruji. I scroll through accolades and obituaries. But on page four, I find this article, “Yoga Teacher FAIL…Is that Pattabhi Jois?,” contributed by Yoga Dork. This picture shows Guruji with his hands in the groins of two female yogis. I first saw the stock photo years ago on a male friend’s Facebook page. The meme made me grimace: “How do I get this guy’s job?” I never would have connected the dots to Pattabhi Jois.

After the YogaCity NYC panel, I know Guruji had another side. Women at the panel discussed misogyny and the culture that produced similar yoga masters. For the first time, I learned that travels to India may not always be the Eat, Pray, Love variety.

Do unfortunate actions take away from a teacher’s good qualities? Maybe or maybe not, depending on how students frame their own narratives.

My point is that when we first seek instruction, we are often hoping to repair a damaged heart and body. We are likely to hand our souls to the first person with authority. Some of that transference is necessary. As a respected colleague said to me, “When you find your teacher, it’s like falling in love.” I agree. Yet before trekking off to an ashram or teacher training, I recommend that if you meet Buddha on the road, google him before you shank him.

-illustration from YogaCity NYC

 

 

The Year In (Dead) Bodies

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1900: Medicine - Anatomy - Musculoskeletal (locomotor) system - Muscles. Drawing. (Photo By DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini/Getty Images)

Photo By DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini/Getty Images)

In my personal research on donating my body to science, I encountered NPR reporter Fred Mogul at NYU School of Medicine’s most recent cadaver memorial in November. He was bugging the stage to collect touching speeches and songs sung by the Ketones, NYU’s medical school choir. I was representing The New York Observer for a 700-article, “The Kindest Cut.” My story centered around two second year students who lingered after the service to snack on bits of the remaining buffet. With me, they discussed the weirdness of dealing with disconnected hands and legs that looked like those of family members.

What impressed me was the admission that medical school was rewarding, but also really hard: “I never doubted that this was what I wanted to do,” said one of the future physicians. “I doubted that I was good enough to do it.”

Fred, meanwhile, had a longer-term project through NPR. He focused on a group of first year students and their relationship with donor Haig Manoukian, whom he met in a body bag on Table 4.

Haig was an Armenian-American whose parents fled the Turkish genocide of World War I. A musician, he played the oud and jammed with the New York Middle Eastern music scene before contracting prostate cancer. The choice to donate Haig’s body was his wife Michele’s. She considered many ways to remember Haig, who loved sharing his craft. Then she stumbled on body donation. “That pulled everything together for me,” she said. “I stopped crying. And I felt integrated. I felt like complete in some way. I just felt this is a real, this is the right decision.”

She said she hoped the students would make really good mistakes on him and feel all sorts of emotions, including humor.

“I didn’t want him to die, and I thought he’ll be alive in some way,” Michele said on NPR’s Only Human. “He won’t go into the dark. He’ll be in light. I didn’t care if it was fluorescent light. I wanted other people’s eyes on him. And I wanted their hands on him. I couldn’t let go. And so I thought, yeah, let’s do that. You know, it was selfish for me in a way, because I just wanted to think of him on 34 th Street. I didn’t want to think of him. I don’t know.”

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Fred Mogul’s wonderful reporting has been released in sections on NPR, “Every (Dead) Body Has A Story” and “A Guide to Donating Your Body To Science.”

Does This MRI Make My Butt Look Flat?

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I had my first MRI today and surprised the technicians when I asked for my CD. Apparently, most people want to leave after being jammed into a cylinder with their toes taped together for 30 minutes, but I really wanted to see my own body. As a result, I left the hospital with moonscapes of my innards. All that tapping and hammering produced great photography. From my home computer, I feel like I’m picking out a head shot, muttering comments like, “That’s the winner right there.” Maybe I’ll time the slides to Stars and Stripes Forever.

As I flip through the images, I can’t believe how much stuff is in my abdominal region: a liver, a spleen, just like in a drawing, except more compact. Also, I’m proud of my butt, but it doesn’t look good when I’m lying down smashed into a tube.

I’m tooting my own X-ray horn in this second picture, which proceeded today’s MRI. You may notice my right hip is a little higher. Not to worry. I have asymmetry going on. Yet I was surprised to see the whiteness of my bones with this X-ray. The doc snapped a picture and sent it to me via phone. A few guy friends got blushy when they saw my pelvis sans skin and organs. I don’t know what to make of males who are attracted to bones, but it does take all kinds, doesn’t it?

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